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Forests and human health

Human health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This issue of Unasylva examines how forests and health are intertwined.

For the compilation of this issue, FAO is greatly indebted to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which has been investigating this topic for the past three years. CIFOR researchers – especially E. Dounias and C.J.P. Colfer – helped plan the issue, contributed to it and enhanced its quality as guest reviewers. The first article, by Colfer and colleagues, reviews recent CIFOR research to provide an overview of the state of human health in forest areas (which are often remote from medical care) and a summary of the causal links between forests and human health.

A recently explored link is that between forest area change (particularly deforestation and forest fragmentation) and the emergence of new infectious diseases (e.g. HIV, Ebola virus) which often originate in animals. B.A. Wilcox and B. Ellis highlight the most prominent forest-associated diseases and summarize factors contributing to their spread: expansion of human populations into forest areas, with increased human exposure to wildlife; modified abundance or dispersal of pathogen hosts and vectors as a result of forest alteration; and altered hydrological functions that may favour water-borne pathogens.

Forest resource management measures can thus help mitigate disease. An example is the use of afforestation to reclaim swamplands, which helped control malaria in early
twentieth-century Italy.

AIDS is having a large impact on woodland communities, particularly in Africa. C. Holding Anyonge et al. document the increased dependence of HIV- and AIDS-affected communities on forest resources – particularly for medicines, energy and food – and explore the resource management implications, highlighting some interventions that might help lessen the impact.

Local knowledge of medicinal plants forms the basis for traditional health care and is also used to derive modern pharmaceuticals. Protecting the rights of rural people to share the benefits from the use of their knowledge and resources is a challenge addressed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A short contribution by J. Muriuki summarizes recent efforts in Africa to develop herbal antimalarial drugs (many based on forest species) – noting their enormous potential, as well as implications for local populations and natural resource conservation.

Next, E. Dounias and A. Froment show how the settlement of nomadic forest dwellers exposes them to unfamiliar diseases and dietary influences – but also to societal ills such as economic insecurity, social prejudice and denial of traditional rights, which can have an equally profound impact on health. Thus in addition to improved medical care, sociopolitical support and access to education are key to the healthy future of these groups.

Forest ecosystems not only contribute to the diets and subsistence of forest dwellers; they also provide a significant portion of the food and medicines consumed by urban populations. T. Johns and P. Maundu examine the link between forest biodiversity and contemporary market-oriented food systems – providing an argument for integrating conservation of forest biodiversity with objectives of poverty reduction, food security and disease reduction in development policies.

Fuelwood is essential to the livelihoods of millions of households in developing countries, but when it goes up in smoke it can threaten respiratory health. K.R. Smith highlights efforts to ameliorate the problem, such as promoting improved stoves. Smoke from forest fires can also threaten the health of large populations – to the extent that in Southeast Asia, countries have adopted an Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Forests also have a role in improving the human environment for better health – for example, by absorbing airborne pollution (a recognized role of urban forests, for example); by taking up heavy metals, radionuclides and other pollutants from soil; and by helping to ensure water quality. J. Křeček and Z. Hořická document the role of watershed forests in mediating acid rain caused by air pollution in Central Europe’s “Black Triangle”. A short contribution examines the degree to which mangroves and other coastal forests can help protect human lives by defending against tsunamis and other coastal hazards.

B. Moore, G. Allard and M. Malagnoux look at a prickly problem for some forest workers and others who spend time in the forest: allergens and irritants from forest insects, plants and trees which can cause skin and respiratory troubles.

Finally, L. O’Brien notes that many European countries are focusing on using trees and woodlands to improve people’s mental and physical health and well-being – as illustrated by varied initiatives in the United Kingdom.

These articles, far more than merely pointing out health problems related to forests, all underline the role that the forest sector and national forestry departments can and often already do play in ensuring human well-being through responsible forest management.

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