Health of forest people needs more attention for welfare and environment

ETNA, United States (10 April, 2012)_Better understanding of the health of forest dwellers is required to both protect their human rights and manage population to ensure sustainable forest use.

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Photo courtesy of Murdani Usman for CIFOR/flickr

ETNA, United States (10 April, 2012)_Better understanding of the health of forest dwellers is required to both protect their human rights and manage population to ensure sustainable forest use.

The relationship between people’s health and the forests in which they live has become increasingly clear in recent years. There has been a growing tendency to see forests in a holistic manner, recognizing their value beyond timber. This has led to better, though still incomplete, understanding of the many uses forests have, from foods and medicines to fibers, not to mention the differing cultural and symbolic meanings people attach to them.

Such recognition led CIFOR scientists in the mid-late 2000s to begin investigating the importance of forests in regard to health, a move in line with the theme of this year’s UN World Health Day, held on Saturday. The 2012 health day operated under the tagline “Good health adds life to years” and focused on how continual good health is an important resource for families and communities.

In 2006, my colleagues and I reviewed global literature on four topics:  1) Forest foods, 2) forest diseases, 3) medical practices of forest dwellers, and 4) culture and forests. We concluded that there was much literature of relevance, scattered among various disciplines, and thus difficult to access; and that the topic was a central concern in our search for forest-based well-being.

In 2008, we produced another book, which turned to thematic and regional health issues, dealing, for instance, with links between HIV/AIDS and forests in southern Africa, forest disturbance and Brazil’s Yanomami people, the varying health of rainforest dwellers in Central Africa, and dietary and cultural elements among forest dwellers in Cameroon and Indonesia. Seventeen analyses provided further, more in-depth evidence of the key links, some good, some bad, between forests and people’s health to strengthen our conviction that people’s health was a crucial factor to include in attempts to manage forests better.

More recently, Powell and Sunderland coordinated a special issue of the International Forestry Review, which linked forests, biodiversity and food security to articles on the dietary consequences of the shift from foraging to farming among forest-based hunter-gatherers; the impacts of forest cover change on diets in Tanzania, nutritional effects of agroforestry in Sub-Saharan Africa, the dietary importance of bushmeat in the Congo and Amazon Basins and women’s particular health difficulties in forests.

Like the 2008 book, this issue provided additional specific information, a geographical layout and provides up-to-date information on the key issues. The current interest in REDD+ and the associated focus on forest people’s activities has added urgency to CIFOR’s research into people’s health in forests. Some REDD+ programs have the potential to have adverse effects in forest communities, highlighting that there is little, if any, evidence that the rather alarming state of people’s health in forests has improved. This is particularly true of those living in degrading forests, which are predicted to increase as climates change.

Yet there is also ample evidence that forest-based cultures typically include health care systems and elements of traditional knowledge on which researchers could profitably build. People living in forests represent important actors, who can make excellent strides in improving their own health with some external facilitation and assistance. They can also serve the research community’s search for a fuller understanding of the change processes underway.

There are broader global reasons for addressing human health in forests as well: Population increase within forests can be and often is environmentally damaging. While many natural resource managers have considered this increase a given, public health practitioners say this is not necessarily the case over the long haul.

But stabilising the population beneficially and garnering the human health and rights improvements this implies require the direct involvement of the people whose lives will be affected. And although such involvement is important in dealing with all people, it is doubly important in crafting solutions that involve women’s beliefs, actions and goals. Currently little is known about women’s lives within the forestry establishment, a crucial issue when dealing with population.

There is a pressing need to continue work on the links between people’s health and forests; yet no party has accepted this responsibility. The medical establishment allocates money based on population, but forests are almost by definition likely to be sparsely populated. This renders significant amounts of assistance from formal health services improbable. The forestry establishment has generally considered health to be outside its realm of expertise.

Attention to forest people’s health, besides having direct human benefits on forest dwellers, is also an opportunity for the forestry community. Such attention addresses a felt need almost everywhere, and is likely, if approached appropriately, to motivate voluntary involvement of local communities. It can also serve as an incentive to improve forest management and develop viable strategies for adaptation to climate change.


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