Better health care can help prevent tropical deforestation

Access to affordable healthcare can make a big difference in addressing deforestation, according to a new study. Researchers from Stanford University found that setting up an affordable health clinic near a national park in Indonesia led to a 70% drop in deforestation over a 10-year period.

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Tropical forests lose more than 100 trees every second, altering landscapes and impacting livelihoods, health, biodiversity, and climate change. Across the tropics, forest loss now exceeds forest gain, leading to net carbon emission from some of the most important natural carbon stocks in the world.

In biodiverse, carbon-rich tropical forests, the establishment of protected areas benefits both conservation and climate mitigation goals. But it often excludes local communities that surround the areas. Failure to address the needs of local people can in turn lead to unsustainable forest use, such as illegal logging.

Nonprofit organizations Alam Sehat Lestari and Health in Harmony established a healthcare clinic in the vicinity of the Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The clinic served thousands of patients and was very affordable, accepting alternative payments such as labor.

The NGOs created a bartering system in the clinic, using hand-made crafts and tree seedlings. The clinic also gave discounts to villages that could show evidence of reductions in illegal logging. Beyond gaining access to affordable healthcare, the residents were provided training in sustainable, organic agriculture.

“This innovative model has clear global health implications,” said study co-author Michele Barry, director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, in a statement. “Health and climate can and should be addressed in unison, and done in coordination with and respect for local communities.”

A team of researchers at the Stanford University team analyzed the outcomes of the health clinic, covering the period from 2009 to 2019. Using satellite images of forest cover and patient records from the clinic, they linked the health program to a 70% drop in deforestation compared to other national parks in Indonesia.

The fall in deforestation averted an estimated equivalent carbon loss of more than $65 million, using European carbon market prices. Looking at community-level logging rates, the study found that the greatest drop-offs in logging occurred adjacent to villages with the highest rates of clinic usage.

Monica Nirmala, executive director of the healthcare clinic from 2014 to 2018, said: “The data support two important conclusions: human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

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