I’ve been busy the last several days attending the “Healthy Environments—Healthy People” stream of the World Conservation Congress. While there has been much talk about the connections between environmental services and people’s livelihoods and allusions to how this links with human health, I’ve been surprised by the scarcity of actual documented linkages between conservation strategies and human health.
This conundrum got me thinking about why there aren’t more people trying to actually evaluate impacts on human health. Do environmentalists simply lack the tools and expertise to evaluate human-health impacts? Are human-health benefits too hard to measure? Or does conservation not really have any human-health benefits? No, no, and no again are my answers to these questions.
I think the real problem is that “healthier people” is really just a good selling-point for conservation rather than a true objective of most conservation institutions. In other words, arguing that environmental health promotes human health is a good way for conservation organizations to expand their constituency.
Am I a jaded conference participant who has simply attended one too many sessions? I don’t think so, based on a meeting I attended last week of the EuroNGOs, a network of European organizations advocating for sexual and reproductive health. The topic of this year’s EuroNGOs meeting? The interface between population, environment, and poverty alleviation. Was this really a group of population and health organizations interested in adding an environmental dimension to their work or interested in the environmental benefits of their work? No—the real purpose was to increase funding for sexual and reproductive health by discussing the links and benefits related to environmental conservation and poverty alleviation. So these are different communities coming together for a common goal: to increase the funding for their particular missions.
Does this mean, however, that it is wrong to advocate for conservation interventions based on health benefits or wrong to advocate for health interventions based on environmental benefits? I don’t think so. I just think we need to do a better job of building bridges across communities. It would have been wonderful to have a few environmental organizations at the EuroNGOs meeting and a few more health organizations at the World Conservation Congress. Perhaps then we would do a better job evaluating the cross-sectoral benefits of our health and environment work.
Jason Bremner is program director for population, health, and environment at the Population Reference Bureau.