Conservation International works to empower communities to responsibly and sustainably care for nature. In the past decade CI has run a number of Population, Health and Environment (PHE) projects, which encourage cross-sector partnerships that link improved human health with improved ecosystem health. We spoke to Janet Edmond, the organisation’s Director of Population Environment, about this approach.
The seeds of Conservation International’s work in PHE were sown years ago, when the organisation was working in Guatemala. Janet Edmond says CI responded to the needs of poor, indigenous groups living in a very isolated, protected area by working with midwives to deliver health services ‘because that’s what the community said they wanted and needed’. She says while projects like Guatemala may not have been well publicised, ‘it definitely was the beginning of this idea that we need to work just not on conservation but we need to look at the broader spectrum of the community needs and the social aspects of the conservation work.’
Healthy Families, Healthy Forests
The group really ramped up its efforts in this area in 2002, when it embarked on the six-year, USAID-funded Healthy Families, Healthy Forests program. During this time CI worked with local stakeholders, health and development agencies in remote, biodiversity-rich areas in Cambodia, Madagascar and the Philippines to bring health services to the communities living there. At the same time, they helped empower community members to practice sustainable environmental management and conserve their surroundings.
Edmond explains the benefits of this approach: ‘It was very important that we partnered with health groups and development groups in some of these really remote areas, where we were already working with biodiversity conservation, to bring in new actors and players so we could bring to these communities things that they said they really needed. Sometimes it was family planning, sometimes it was vaccinations for the kids, sometimes it was diarrhoea medicine or strategies to treat some of the smoke that comes with the cook stoves, or treating respiratory illnesses.
‘For CI it was really a win-win, because we were able to really improve our relations with those communities and then we were able to build that goodwill into the conservation work we were doing.’
Edmond says the programs in all three countries achieved results in both health and conservation outcomes, including providing health services to poor, remote communities; training local health care professionals in health and conservation; promoting behaviour change and educating young people about environmental issues; and building the capacity to pursue alternative livelihoods that have less impact on natural resources. Family planning and reproductive health was a major focus in all three countries, with the programs promoting the idea that smaller, healthier families leads to an improved stewardship of the environment.
Edmond recalls a few achievements that benefited both people and the environment: ‘In Cambodia they were able to rehabilitate some of the paddies that had been left unattended for all the years that they were having the civil strife, so there definitely were increased rice yields and ability to feed people. One survey we did showed the villagers were only able to produce food for nine out of 12 months, and the rest had to be purchased from other sources, so rehabilitating those rice fields in a sustainable way gave them added income and added food security.’
‘In Madagascar we tried to improve farming practices like getting rid of the slash and burn and being able to offer alternatives to that. We tried to do alternative fish farming and bee keeping, to show that there’s another way to make money. It’s very time intensive, I think it takes a while until things really take off but it seemed like a lot of those were very productive – looking at livelihoods and also trying to get women involved as much as possible, to give women more of the access to economic opportunities.’
Edmond says the cross-sector model was a natural fit with the way local community management operates, so the stakeholders involved quickly embraced it. ‘I think at a community level they have committees that are not just health or not just development, they’re really looking at the whole village needs, which are integrated so they definitely get the whole integrated picture. We’ve had a lot of support really, it’s been very encouraging.’
The success of Healthy Families Healthy Forests has paved the way for CI’s involvement in a number of PHE programs through the BALANCED (Building Actors and Leaders for Community Excellence in Development) Project, which is led by the Coastal Resources Centre of the University of Rhode Island, with funding from USAID. These projects are based in the Philippines and a number of countries in East Africa.
‘After Healthy Families, Healthy Forests, USAID felt like that they had some tangible evidence that yes, these approaches are valuable and yes, they do have some impact on both the health and conservation sides,’ she says. ‘So this new five year project is not so much about testing and doing things in the field, but about promoting them through training and workshops and developing tools and basically making sure that people in the field have resources.’
Edmond believes the PHE programs have had a profound effect on the way CI approaches its work. ‘We don’t just have to be about park conservation – we can look at community needs and that kind of thing. CI has definitely really transformed from just working in conservation to be more about how we meet human wellbeing needs in the context of conservation. So we really have changed that old paradigm.’