How preserving tropical rainforests could prevent pandemics

By working with local communities to preserve tropical rainforests, Health in Harmony has developed an approach that can also reduce the risk of pathogen spillover and early disease spread.
How preserving tropical rainforests could prevent pandemics
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If tropical rainforests are lost, the climate crisis will be irreversible. 91% of lands occupied by Indigenous Peoples are in good or moderate ecological condition, yet, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IP & LC) receive less than 1% of climate funding. Humanity must shift the paradigm to invest in IP & LC knowledge to stabilize climate, revive nature, and restore social justice. There are no longer ‘donors’ and ‘beneficiaries’, as we all benefit when rainforest ecosystems are restored.

Health In Harmony (HIH) has been working alongside IP & LC to catalyze this change using Radical Listening® to invest precisely in community-designed solutions to protect rainforest ecosystems in Indonesia, Madagascar, and Brazil. These solutions typically leverage the real-life linkages between healthcare access, regenerative livelihood support, food security, and conservation. A Stanford study evaluating this innovative model was published by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that an investment of USD 5.2 million over 10 years resulted in the protection of ecosystems worth $65 million in carbon protected, primary forest loss stabilized, a 90% drop in illegal logging households, and a significant improvement in health indicators linked to the investment.

Supporting IP & LC climate solutions may also be the key to preventing pandemics. A new paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Interventions to Reduce Risk for Pathogen Spillover and Early Disease Spread to Prevent Outbreaks, Epidemics, and Pandemics”, reveals that a solution to preventing pandemics may be found in partnering with and investing in the expertise of rainforest communities. It notes that pathogens that cause most emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife, and then spill over into humans. The risk of pathogen spillover and early disease spread can be reduced by keeping forests intact, wildlife within, and reducing contact with humans. The study is the result of a collaborative effort by experts in 11 institutions across six countries, including Health In Harmony, all of which are members of the Preventing Pandemics at the Source coalition.

HIH is currently in the third year of leading a prospective cohort study with partners from Zoo New England, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Centre ValBio, Mahaliana Labs, Université d'Antananarivo, Duke University, University of Chicago, and the Missouri Botanical Gardens to ask: Do community-designed solutions to reverse deforestation in Manombo, Madagascar restore biodiversity, improve wildlife and human health, and reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover? A substantive body of literature suggests that intact ecosystems may offer disease-buffering services for surrounding human communities, presenting a win-win opportunity for wildlife conservation and human health. However, very few studies have evaluated the impact of forest conservation on spillover prevention and disease reduction in an experimental framework. The HIH program in Madagascar offers an opportunity to do just that.

Manombo Rainforest is surrounded by 8,000 people living in 31 communities. It provides habitat for nine lemur, 20 bat, and four tenrec species. We are conducting a broad One Health assessment of the pathogen and parasite communities around Manombo Rainforest at the onset and over the course of long-term, community-designed forest conservation initiatives carried out by HIH in partnership with rainforest communities. Our goal is to assess the impacts of the community-designed interventions on (1) biodiversity, (2) wildlife health, and (3) human health in the region.

Despite the need for interdisciplinary climate-solutions, funding for interdisciplinary work is limited. Many major climate funders still view climate change and health in separate siloes, which they won’t fund in tandem. In addition, grant funding is often short-term. Grants that offer funding across three years are considered standard, whereas the need for sustainable funding is critical. As HIH challenges the traditional funding practices for climate solutions, the organization will continue to push for changes that serve needs defined by communities themselves.

Other ongoing projects

Indonesia

Lack of access to healthcare is a major driver of ecosystem destruction in Indonesian Borneo, as identified by local rainforest communities, so Health In Harmony co-founded the Alam Sehat Lestari Medical Center (ASRI). ASRI hires local medical professionals to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare including, but not limited to, primary care, maternal and child care, dentistry, vision, vaccinations, and counseling. Patients can pay for services with cash, seedlings, handicrafts, organic manure, and more to ensure care is always accessible. Communities also receive discounts of up to 70% when they commit to stop logging in the National Park. In addition to healthcare services, communities benefit from economic development programs such as organic farming, Goats for Widows, and Chainsaw Buyback, which provides capital and training to loggers so they can start small businesses.

Highlights:

  • Created ASRI Medical Center to provide affordable healthcare, accessible to over 120,000 individuals in the region
  • Over 200 former loggers have sold their chainsaws and received alternative livelihood and business support through ASRI’s Chainsaw Buyback program
  • Reforested over 125 hectares of rainforest from 2021-2022

Brazil

In 2020, SAMA Health In Harmony launched programs alongside rainforest communities to protect a vital portion of the Amazon Rainforest in the Xingu Corridor of Socio-Environmental Diversity. This region is particularly important because of its rich socio-biodiversity and key contribution to rain generation, feeding South America with rain via flying rivers and influencing global weather patterns. Based on Radical Listening sessions, SAMA Health In Harmony has been working to continually and holistically increase well-living by investing in community-designed solutions. This includes facilitating access to free and better healthcare, valuing traditional medicine practices, and strengthening forest economy activities and traditional livelihoods that Riverine and Indigenous communities have been developing in harmony with nature. These community-designed programs strengthen well-living and collective stewardship of the Amazon Rainforest. SAMA Health In Harmony’s health expeditions were featured in this article by Nature.

Highlights:

  • Conducted over 2,800 patient visits through routine health expeditions since 2020
  • Administered over 2,000 COVID-19 vaccinations
  • Supporting over 200 individuals’ livelihoods through Forest Economy
  • Participate in regional networks to strengthen territorial governance of the Lower and Middle Xingu Basin
  • Provide technical assistance in Forest Economy to the Cantinas Network (Rede de Cantinas da Terra do Meio)

Top image from Health in Harmony

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