Forest health and human health are inextricably linked: we need a systems approach to conserving and promoting the health benefits of forests
Our key takeaway: There is ample evidence that forests provide essential benefits to human health. Forests provide water, food and medicinal plants; reduce the spread of infectious diseases; mitigate the health impacts from air pollution; and provide mental and physical health benefits that reduce the prevalence of non-communicable diseases. By embracing a systems approach, investors and companies in sectors as diverse as health, agriculture, consumer goods, construction and energy can protect, restore, manage, and create forests while respecting and promoting the human right to health.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Global Health Visions (GHV) have published a report on the underlying links between forest health and human health:
- A holistic framework to understand the link between forests and human health: Forests are home to more than 750 million people worldwide and provide livelihoods directly to 1.6 billion people. They also perform several functions that are beneficial to human health. Due to COVID 19, “[t]he unprecedented attention to and interest in the links between nature and human health have illuminated the critical function of forests in individual, community, and global human health.” The report categorizes them into three kinds. First, the provisioning function of providing food, medicinal plants, and water. Forests “positively impact nutrition and food security for many communities, influencing health outcomes.” Second, the prevention function of reducing the risk of spillovers of zoonotic infectious diseases and the risks of natural hazards (e.g., flooding, landslides, storms, and heat). Third, the healing function of reducing the risks of noncommunicable diseases by filtering air pollution and providing mental health and lifestyle benefits. These functions are interconnected and interact with underlying environmental, institutional and behavioural factors: “A comprehensive understanding of forests and human health must look not only at the direct interactions but also at how forest loss indirectly impacts human health in many ways (e.g., air quality and climate change).”
- A systems approach to conserving and promoting the health benefits of forests: The report points to the role of applying a systems approach when expanding current research on the health impacts of forests, identifying knowledge gaps and proposing public and private initiatives to promote their benefits to human health. There are four systemic changes needed to sustain and enhance the positive impacts of forests. First, protecting forests and avoiding their conversion, by “formalizing tenure rights for local populations; increasing permanent finance for protected areas; improving yields on agricultural lands; and halting the expansion of agriculture and infrastructure into intact forest landscapes.” Second, improving forest management of working lands, through supporting regenerative agriculture; removing perverse economic incentives that reward forest conversion; and restoring degraded lands. Third, taking a diversified approach to forest restoration that makes forest and landscape restoration possible and permanent. Key actions include “mobilizing long-term finance, securing tenure rights, and ensuring mechanisms for equitable benefit sharing with local populations.” Finally, creating urban forests by “increasing green space, and planting trees” in areas with high population density.
- A call to action: The report calls on decision-makers in the public and private sectors, especially those in the development, health, and environmental fields, to provide platforms to understand, explore and promote the health benefits of forests. WWF points out that, “[t]he recognition of the interconnections between forests and human health should encourage the adoption of a holistic framework to understand the direct and indirect interactions and to elicit actions to maintain and restore the vitality of forests.” Human health concerns can provide common ground for collaboration among stakeholders working towards forest conservation and regeneration—even those with “seemingly opposing goals.” Private actors can create space for research and discussion and develop environmental action plans that integrate ecological and health concerns.