Planetary Health and Human Health — You Can’t Have One Without the Other

Eliana DaCunha, Providence College
Planetary Health Campus Ambassador

As an undergraduate student with plans to attend medical school, I’ve always taken a special interest in healthcare. As an avid surfer who’s grown up next to the ocean my entire life, spending time in nature has always been a kind of medicine for me. I had always known of the mental health benefits that came with stepping away from the stresses of life and stepping into the quiet rumbles of the ocean. However, it wasn’t until I learned more about planetary health through the Planetary Health Alliance Campus Ambassador Program that I discovered just how important healthy ecosystems are to sustaining human health and vice versa.

Can You Save Lives by Saving Trees?

Last year, during my search for summer internships, I came across an organization called Health in Harmony. Founded by Dr. Kinari Webb, this organization is rooted in the idea that human health and planetary health are inextricably linked. As an undergraduate student, Dr. Webb traveled to Borneo to study orangutans. However, deforestation, she would learn, was eradicating their habitats at alarmingly high rates. In her TEDx talk (watch it here), Dr. Webb said it was easy to hate the loggers who destroy the orangutans’ habitat for profit. But as she got to know them, she discovered that these loggers were in financially strenuous situations. They didn’t cut down the forests because they wanted to — in fact, according to Dr. Webb’s survey, 99% of the loggers wanted to preserve the forests for future generations, and 100% of them wanted to quit logging completely. These loggers know that the forests act as watersheds for their rice fields and are home to not only beautiful orangutans but also incredible biodiversity. Unfortunately, when your wife needs a C-section or your child is sick, the only way to pay for medical bills is through the fast cash that illegal logging provides.

Dr. Webb realized that to save orangutans, she’d have to save humans too. She went back to the U.S. and attended medical school before returning to Indonesia to create a dual healthcare and conservation program through which her nonprofit, Health in Harmony, was born. By partnering with the Indonesian people, Dr. Webb was able to offer the loggers and their families affordable, high-quality healthcare and even train them in sustainable agriculture that eliminated the need to slash-and-burn forests. But it gets better. The people of Borneo have the option of paying for their healthcare with seedlings (used for reforestation), manure (fertilizer for organic farming), handicrafts (sold to pay for medicine), or with labor (which makes operating the organization cheaper). These modes of payment completely eliminated the need for people to log. Furthermore, their training in organic farming actually enabled them to take up agriculture instead because they no longer needed to purchase expensive chemical fertilizers to do so. Villages that had completely stopped logging were then awarded a 70% discount on their medicine. Unsurprisingly, after 5 years, Dr. Webb’s project significantly improved not only the forest’s health but also the health of Borneo’s people.

Through Dr. Webb’s work, the people of Borneo have become guardians of the forest. By showing them how to fulfill their needs more sustainably, Dr. Webb has enabled the villagers to adopt lifestyles that protect the forests that sustain them. Excited and inspired by Dr. Webb’s work, I sought to involve my college in Health in Harmony’s Educational Exchange program. This was my first project as a Planetary Health Alliance Campus Ambassador (PHCA). My hope was that through this program, students like me who are interested in medicine and conservation could visit Borneo and volunteer with Dr. Webb’s organization. Unfortunately, we had to put this trip on hold due to the spread of COVID-19.

Habitat Destruction and the Spread of Disease

Although I was disappointed that we had to temporarily suspend our plans, more intense sadness overtook me when daily news reports shared the rising death tolls around the world. As the pandemic progressed, myself and other PHCAs found ourselves discussing the consequences of environmental destruction — one of them being the spread of zoonotic diseases. It wasn’t until we started having these discussions that I realized diseases make up another facet of the human and planetary health relationship. I knew that COVID-19 had been transmitted to humans from bats, but I didn’t know that similar viruses — HIV, Ebola, SARS, Zika — had also arisen from human contact with infected animals. The jump of diseases from wildlife to humans is becoming increasingly frequent as population growth, deforestation, and uncontrolled hunting/poaching and fishing become more common. Wild animal markets in particular are the perfect place for a virus like COVID-19 to surface. Located in densely inhabited areas, these markets bring many species of animals, some of which are endangered, into contact with people (learn more here).

Unfortunately, if we fail to take actions that will protect our ecosystems, we are setting ourselves up for another pandemic. Destroying animals’ habitats not only traffics them into closer proximity with one another, encouraging the transmission of diseases, but also makes it more likely for humans to come into contact with potentially infected wildlife. Dr. Webb’s work with Health in Harmony is doing so much more than just saving trees — it’s saving lives, and not just because now the people of Borneo don’t have to worry about their medical bills. By protecting their rainforests and keeping the habitats of wildlife intact, they are also preventing the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans.

COVID-19, like many other zoonotic diseases, has brought global attention to the need for environmental protection. We must stop seeing the fight against viruses like COVID-19 as independent from the fight for healthy ecosystems. Our negligence towards the environment and its wildlife has already resulted in multiple outbreaks that have cost so many lives. As an aspiring physician, my love for nature has made me more in tune to the dynamics between planetary and human health. I’m now realizing that if we want to prevent future viral outbreaks, we must understand how vital preserving our ecosystems is to protecting our own health. Like climate change, environmental destruction poses a direct threat to human health. You think COVID-19 makes it hard to breathe? Imagine what pollution will do if we don’t put an end to it. It’s so important that healthcare providers perceive threats to the environment as threats to public health because ultimately, it will be they who have to deal with illnesses and deaths we could have prevented. It will be me, and future physicians like me, who might have to treat patients with illnesses perpetuated and spread as a result of environmental hazards and destruction.

Hope For the Future and Faith in Our Youth

My PHCA family is made up of students from 16 different countries. Some are undergraduates like me, some are Master’s students studying tropical medicine, some are PhDs working in conservation, and some are even training physicians. It gives me so much hope that despite how different our fields are, we have all made learning about sustainability and environmental protection one of our top priorities. Our love for nature is one that we want to share with younger generations. So, we have taken up the work of creating a children’s book that will educate today’s youth about planetary health. We hope that our “ABCs of Planetary Health” book will teach children about ecosystems, encourage them to foster an appreciation for the natural world, and help them cope with the stresses and isolation COVID-19 has brought about. Although our publication is a small project, we hope that it can empower more youth to one day tackle the same problems we are. It’s optimistic, but my hope is that by the time the children reading our book are adults, these problems will not exist or at least have working solutions in implementation. My hope is that somehow, some way, humanity will unite together to protect this beautiful blue planet that we call home — for our sake and for the planet’s sake. It’s all in our hands — our health, our children’s health, our planet’s health. It’s time that we all hold these things close to our hearts rather than handing them off to the next generation. It’s time we take action.

Generating better understanding of the links between accelerating global environmental change and human health to support policy making and public education