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As international organizations seek to reduce deforestation in the face of climate change, an FSPH team is providing a model for considering the health of both the forest and its longtime inhabitants.

APPROXIMATELY A BILLION PEOPLE around the world are dependent on forests for their livelihood and daily sustenance, including countless indigenous and highly vulnerable populations. But in the face of development, climate change and deforestation, many of the world’s forests and the populations that depend on them are being threatened. While forest conservation is a worldwide priority, these programs have the potential to make matters worse for the local populations that rely on them – leading to a phenomenon known as “conservation refugees,” in which indigenous populations that have lived in the forest for centuries are forced to leave their homes, livelihoods and cultures behind in the name of forest conservation.

“Many indigenous populations have been negatively affected by the historical perspective that people and ‘pristine’ forests are independent of one another,” says Savanna Carson, a Fielding School PhD student in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “In fact, the opposite is true – these populations often have sustainable livelihoods and a deep expertise in forest dynamics. They are part of the ecosystem and should be widely incorporated, not excluded or alienated, in conservation management.”

Young Baka villager smiles for camera / Photo by Day's Edge Productions
Indigenous Baka villagers of the Dja Reserve, a rainforest in Cameroon. The Baka have lived sustainably in the forests of the Congo Basin for thousands of years. Photo by Nathan Dappen / Day's Edge Productions.
Indigenous Baka villagers of the Dja Reserve, a rainforest in Cameroon. The Baka have lived sustainably in the forests of the Congo Basin for thousands of years. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold.

Carson entered the Fielding School doctoral program with an interest in exploring what constitutes effective and sustainable international assistance in the face of climate change. Dr. Hilary Godwin, her faculty adviser, told her about a proposed United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD+) program to be situated in southern Cameroon, which would focus on conserving critical forests in the Congo Basin. Godwin’s concern was that these forests are also home to the Baka, the largest indigenous population in Cameroon. The Baka (or “forest people”) have traditionally lived as hunter-gatherers, maintaining their own language and living sustainably in the forests of the Congo Basin. The question for potential study: How can public health professionals work together with conservationists to ensure that the needs of people and the environment are both considered when new conservation programs are implemented?

Together with Godwin and Brian Cole (DrPH ’03), adjunct assistant professor in Environmental Health Sciences and program manager and lead analyst for the Fielding School’s Health Impact Assessment Group, Carson has embarked on a project that aims to use the health impact assessment (HIA) as a tool to both quantify the health impacts of the proposed REDD+ project in Cameroon and engage the Baka and other local stakeholders in critical decisions about how the program will be implemented. Using health as a metric shifts the conversation from one that focuses on economic outcomes to one that focuses on the well-being of local populations. And by engaging local stakeholders in the process early on, the program is more likely to achieve its conservation goals and be sustainable in the long run.

UCLA and Cameroon students working together at a training workshop focusing on biodiversity and data management. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold.
UCLA and Cameroon students working together at a training workshop focusing on biodiversity and data management. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold.

“In the past, we’ve seen a disconnect between concerns about protecting the environment and efforts to ensure that the rights of indigenous populations are also protected,” says Godwin, professor of environmental health sciences and associate dean for academic programs at the Fielding School. “HIA provides a methodology that allows for a more systematic approach to balancing conservation concerns with people’s health concerns.”

HIAs have been used increasingly within public health to inform decision-makers about the health implications of potential policies or programs. But Cole, who has conducted HIAs and provided technical assistance on their use in policies and projects that include living-wage ordinances, urban redevelopments, school programs, and transportation initiatives, notes that this is among the first uses of the HIA in an international setting. “With this project, we’re saying that health is a valuable lens to look at how the local people will see the potential benefits of the policy options and how certain policies might harm them,” he says.

“In the past, we’ve seen a disconnect between concerns about protecting the environment and efforts to ensure that the rights of indigenous populations are also protected.” —Hilary Godwin

Last summer, Carson, Godwin and Cole partnered with FSPH adjunct assistant professor Kevin Njabo and a local Cameroonian student and spent several weeks interviewing an indigenous population in four villages, as well as staff at health clinics, in and around the northern region of the Dja Reserve, a proposed UN-REDD+ conservation site in Cameroon. The pilot study conducted by the Fielding School team was designed to obtain baseline information on the current health conditions and challenges facing local populations; how they are affected by deforestation and resource exploitation (e.g., logging and mining activities); and how a REDD+ program could protect both the forest and their health.

“With this approach, we are taking a broad perspective on health,” says Cole. “It means the totality of physical, mental and social well-being; it includes their ability to make a living so that they can feed their children, house their family and have access to education; and it includes access to clean drinking water, good food sources, and health and social services.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that deforestation and forest degradation (through activities such as agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, fires, and logging) contribute close to 20 percent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. UN-REDD was established in 2008 to offer financial incentives for low-income countries to help maintain their forests as carbon sinks. In recognition of the impact such actions could have on the local populations – potentially relocating indigenous populations into urban areas to the detriment of their health, culture, and way of life – the REDD+ program is aimed at promoting sustainable management of forests in ways that benefit the forest-dependent populations at the same time that they are contributing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The FSPH team is committed to making sure forest-dwelling indigenous populations are recognized and included in future forest policies and programs. “There’s a growing awareness that local and indigenous populations should be at the table in formulating these policies, but recent projects that tried to benefit these populations have solely focused on economic development, such as paying them for ecological services,” says Carson. “This is in opposition to what these populations need, want, and encompass in their traditional lifestyles. If you talk to people in the population, they will tell you they don’t care about money; their way of thinking is in the forest.”

Dr. Hilary Godwin with Benjamin Mboundji, a Baka villager. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold.
Dr. Hilary Godwin with Benjamin Mboundji, a Baka villager. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold.

The HIA is designed to be an inclusive process, and it provides UN-REDD+ programs with a methodology for ensuring the social safeguards they are intended to provide. As part of its pilot study, the Fielding School-led group spelled out the potential positive health impacts of policies that ensure forest resource rights for local populations, investment in maternal and child health programs, improving access to clean water, and developing sustainable job creation programs. Most importantly, the team noted, the indigenous population should be at the forefront when decisions are made that affect their future and livelihood.

“We’re very concerned about the Baka, a vulnerable population,” says Godwin. “And, more broadly, we are hoping to demonstrate a way to introduce public health concerns into the dialogue about how to create conservation programs that have multiple benefits, including co-benefits for local people.”

In her interviews with Baka families, Carson heard firsthand about the needs of a population devastated by easily preventable health problems. Like many indigenous populations, Carson says, the Baka stand to benefit from an investment in their health and well-being – and from a new comprehensive approach to forest conservation policy – but they deserve to have a say in how those policies and programs are developed and implemented.

“Indigenous populations are especially vulnerable because of cultural differences and language barriers that leave them misunderstood,” Carson says. “Yet, they know better than anyone about which traditional medicines come from which trees, or which animals have disappeared recently. Working with them to develop these policies is the right thing to do from both a human rights and a conservation perspective.” •