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Research Report

Forests and Human Health: Assessing the Evidence

Carol J. Pierce Colfer
Douglas Sheil
Misa Kishi
Copyright Date: Jan. 1, 2006
Pages: 121
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-6)

    People living in and around forests suffer from many illnesses, both acute and chronic, and outside pressure on their social and cultural systems often adversely affects their mental and spiritual health. The role of forests in sustaining or worsening human health has been the subject of debate. Elements of these debates span numerous topics and disciplines—anthropology and human ecology, economics, epidemiology, ethnobotany, forest ecology, pharmacology, politics, economics. Such a breadth of issues makes it hard for scientists, let alone policymakers, to be clear about what to do.

    Between 1994 and 1998, about 20 international and interdisciplinary teams of experts...

  2. (pp. 7-33)

    The significance of forests for food security is a controversial topic. Pimentel et al. (1997), for instance, estimate that some 300 million people (a figure that seems low to us) obtain part or all of their livelihood and food from forests, that nontimber forest products worth about US $90 billion are harvested each year, and that forests play critical roles in maintaining the productivity of agricultural and environmental systems. Although we find such global generalizations suspect almost by definition, these figures do give some idea of relevant magnitudes. Most of the studies we review here examine microlevel contexts.

    A good...

  3. (pp. 34-62)

    The ubiquity of disease in forested areas is an important consideration as we look at the state of human health in forested areas and the causal links between forests and health. In this section, we first survey the causes of disease in forested areas (summarized in Table 4). We then review some disease-by-disease studies. Rather than do a thorough review of all diseases that occur in forests, we provide some sense of the nature and extent of diseases and other important health problems of the recent past.

    Macintyre et al. (2002) discuss theories about the impacts of place on health....

  4. (pp. 63-79)

    Six topics emerged as significant in our investigation of forests and medicinal plants:

    1. medicinal plants and animals from the forest;

    2. local knowledge about forest medicines;

    3. the role and costs of these medicines;

    4. threats to the sustainability of traditional medicines;

    5. health care providers in forests; and

    6. financial benefits from forest medicines.

    We devote a section to each and conclude in Section 4.7 with a discussion of some recurrent themes in this literature.

    Forests are important repositories of medicinal compounds from wild organisms (Seters 1997; Bryant 2002), including some common foods and drinks. This role is the basis for many arguments for...

  5. (pp. 80-86)

    Culture, or way of life, is vitally important to all peoples’ well-being, and in fact encompasses the other issues addressed in this review. Foster and Anderson (1978), in a classic work, delineate the multiple links between culture and health. Participation in a cultural system is a defining characteristic of human beings. The links between forests and food, health and medicine are closely related to cultural integrity, since each culture has its mechanisms for providing these human needs. Peoples whose cultural systems are under attack—as are many in forested areas—manifest social problems, such as increases in alcoholism, prostitution, domestic...

  6. (pp. 87-88)

    We discuss three implications of our research, three ways we need to improve our communications, and three ideas for future research.

    First, what have we learned about the condition of people’s health in and around forests? Tropical forests provide essential foods, medicines, health care and meaning to peoples all over the world—with the benefits generally increasing with proximity to the forest. However, forest communities are not high on the agenda of most governmental health care institutions because the people involved are often few and the logistics of serving them formidable. Although there is some evidence that hunter-gatherers—the most...