Deforestation and land use change are among the most pressing anthropogenic environmental impacts. In Brazil, a resurgence of malaria in recent decades paralleled rapid deforestation and settlement in the Amazon basin, yet evidence of a deforestation-driven increase in malaria remains equivocal. We hypothesize an underlying cause of this ambiguity is that deforestation and malaria influence each other in bidirectional causal relationships-deforestation increases malaria through ecological mechanisms and malaria reduces deforestation through socioeconomic mechanisms-and that the strength of these relationships depends on the stage of land use transformation. We test these hypotheses with a large geospatial dataset encompassing 795 municipalities across 13 y (2003 to 2015) and show deforestation has a strong positive effect on malaria incidence. Our results suggest a 10% increase in deforestation leads to a 3.3% increase in malaria incidence (∼9,980 additional cases associated with 1,567 additional km2 lost in 2008, the study midpoint, Amazon-wide). The effect is larger in the interior and absent in outer Amazonian states where little forest remains. However, this strong effect is only detectable after controlling for a feedback of malaria burden on forest loss, whereby increased malaria burden significantly reduces forest clearing, possibly mediated by human behavior or economic development. We estimate a 1% increase in malaria incidence results in a 1.4% decrease in forest area cleared (∼219 fewer km2 cleared associated with 3,024 additional cases in 2008). This bidirectional socioecological feedback between deforestation and malaria, which attenuates as land use intensifies, illustrates the intimate ties between environmental change and human health.
Keywords: Brazil; Plasmodium falciparum; Plasmodium vivax; environmental change; instrumental variables.