The International EcoHealth Forum 2008 took place December 2008, in Mérida, Yucatán, México. With 689 participants, it marked an important milestone in strengthening ecohealth research and building partnerships between researchers, practitioners, polic makers, and civil society organizations.
Read a summary of the third plenary session that focused on sustainability.
Dr Donna Mergler
Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ), Brazil
Dr Jaime Breilh
Centro de Estudios y Asesoría en Salud (CEAS), Ecuador
Dr Daniel Robledo
Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN, México
Dr Iman Nuwayhid
American University of Beirut
On providing a general overview of the session, Dr Iman Nuwayhid of the American University of Beirut said the concept of dignity and a grassroots approach to solutions were integral to each presenter’s discussion. The way forward lies in both focusing on local issues and thus working for social justice at the global level.
Several key themes emerged from the presentations, including people’s need to maintain a livelihood. People always look at ways to improve their lives, Dr Nuwayhid said, but this must be secured without “stepping on the rights of others or other ecosystems.”
While critical driving forces exist at the community level, global level forces must also be considered, said Dr Nuwayhid. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions, where economies are changing rapidly and becoming increasingly competitive, it is important to protect the rights of migrant workers.
Dr Nuwayhid said war is a global “destabilizing factor.” The conflict in Iraq, for example, has had significant detrimental impacts on both the ecosystems and the lives of people in the region. Wetlands have been drained for cultivation, oil fires have wreaked havoc, sanctions have denied people acceptable living conditions, and many suffer malnutrition.
The “World with Limits” Plenary presentations “were really inspirational,” said Dr Nuwayhid. Small scale community projects show it is possible to reverse unsustainable practices. Dr Robledo discussed alternative livelihoods such as seaweed farming, which can in part replace collapsing coastal fisheries in Mexico. Dr Padua gave examples of community projects that combat the destruction of forests in Brazil, while Dr Breilh outlined how a responsible scientific agenda can bring about truly sustainable societies. However, the presentations also illustrated the enormity of the challenge taken on by these grass-roots efforts.
Shaping the scientific agenda for sustainable development under the pressure of global acceleration and crises
Dr Jaime Breilh of the Centro de Estudios y Asesoría en Salud (CEAS) said the concepts of sustainability and health should be profoundly rethought. “Should the current social and philosophical models simply be maintained and adjusted to permit continuity?” he asked. “Or should those models be radically altered to permit sustainable societies rather than sustainable development?” The latter approach is multi-dimensional and characterized by several factors, including:
- A vision of equality
- The integration of all sectors
- An emphasis on the notion of sovereignty
- The integration of interculturalism
- A new approach to the system of needs
Dr Breilh said one should discuss sustainable capacity rather than biocapacity. While both terms refer to biological productivity, sustainable capacity integrates several other issues, such as:
- Fertility, biomass, and nutrition
- Ability for dignified work
- Cultural- and identity-related recreation
- Solidarity with different organizations and collective support
- Harmonious relations with nature
Sustainable capacity denotes the integrated productivity of a socio-natural space for sustained reproduction, the betterment of life and the economy, and cultural and political conditions that guarantee modes of living and equality for present and future generations.
If the concept of sustainable capacity is adopted, research should not only examine health impacts on individuals, as is currently done with vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, but should also incorporate knowledge of social determinants, said Dr Breilh. For unsustainable societies, Dr Breilh said research would focus on:
- Reproduction and human-nature relations
- Needs as seen through the concept of values
- Equality and respect of basic rights
- Economic acceleration and globalization
In his book, Aceleración global y despojo en Ecuador, Dr Breilh describes that country’s experience with dispossession since the mid-1990s. He points to policies adopted by the Ecuadorian government that have negatively impacted the country’s social development. Dr Breilh referred to a study that linked International Monetary Fund (IMF) investment in Eastern European countries between 1992 and 2002 with a rise in tuberculosis. He suggested that these types of foreign aid programs deteriorate societies and cause significant problems.
In Ecuador, the growing cut-flower industry has resulted in an increase in pesticide use, inequitable access to water, and a decrease in biodiversity. Many organizations have called for constitutional reform and some changes have been made—Ecuador’s constitution now includes legal health protection and is the first in the world to grant rights to nature. However, Dr Breilh said, these changes will result in few concrete gains if laws are not strengthened and enforced. Standards, regulations, and guidelines must be established.
A responsible scientific agenda must also follow to provoke and support change. Dr Breilh listed several steps that have been taken to this end:
- The establishment of a doctoral program in collective health, environment, and society at Simón Bolívar Andean University
- The creation of an Andean Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, in collaboration with neighbouring countries
- The establishment of linkages with the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research, providing excellent partnership with Canadians so that scholars and practitioners from Northern and Southern countries can work together for everyone’s benefit
- A collaborative doctoral project with the University of British Columbia, Canada — bilateral research that can impact policy outside of national boundaries
For Dr Breilh, these types of research initiatives are not carried out with an exclusively Western academic perspective, but are enhanced by the rich contributions of the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people. There is much to learn from indigenous culture and tradition, including the integration of the “shungo” (heart) and “nucto” (brain). The melding of academic and indigenous thought could provide the basis for constitutional reform, he said. “We need to recuperate the feeling, the content, and the scale of life that the greed of large corporations has snatched away from us,” said Dr Breilh. “In this sense, small is beautiful.”
Seaweed farming in the tropics: Environmental and social concerns
Dr Daniel Robledo of the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN (Cinvestav) said alternative livelihood strategies will be essential to solve environmental issues in coastal areas. By 2025, the world’s coastal population will increase by 35% and this will have an impact on environmental resources. Declining water quality, habitat loss, and changes to habitat and species distributions are also expected. Climate change will contribute to the deterioration of the coastal area, forcing coastal populations to change their economic activities.
In addition to coastal zone deterioration, fisheries are declining worldwide, said Dr Robledo. Estimates account that around one quarter of world fisheries are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse in 40 years unless the current situation is altered.
Dr Robledo said the development of alternative livelihoods to improve the socio-economic status of small-scale fisheries has become a popular policy. Various activities have been explored as alternative livelihood options. Fishermen are willing to forego fishing in favour of more lucrative economic opportunities, and seaweed cultivation has been proposed as one such alternative.
Seaweed is a viable option for numerous reasons, including its economic importance. The demand for carrageenan—a type of phycocolloid derived from the red algae Kappaphycus—has been increasing steadily because of its ability to form strong gels and interact with milk proteins. Carrageenan is used as a smoothening agent in many products such as ice cream, jellies, toothpaste, etc. Kappaphycus alvarezii was worth between US$1,200 and US$1,500 per megaton as of January 2008. It has been introduced into all areas of the world, from Africa to Brazil, and has a number of attributes that make it particularly suitable for aquaculture. Simple techniques and low inputs are required for its cultivation and post-harvest preparation.
Dr Robledo said the introduction and commercialization of Kappaphycus has had positive effects on people’s livelihood, but some environmental concerns have been raised. Kappaphycus is a potentially destructive invasive species. It was responsible for a reduction of biodiversity, coral death, and habitat alteration in Hawaii, the Gulf of Mannar, and Venezuela. These impacts currently appear to be relatively benign, although some countries are taking precautionary steps. Kappaphycus farms in Brazil have been delimited and quarantine protocols have been approved by Mexico and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).
The social and economic implications of seaweed farming are substantial, said Dr Robledo. The average annual income of the 180,000 people involved in cultivation is approximately US$2,000. Ordinary fishermen in Tanzania receive US$565 compared to the US$1,000 that seaweed farmers receive. The current demand exceeds the supply and cultivation areas are increasing by approximately 5% annually. Despite this demand, seaweed farmers do not receive their fair share in the value chain, said Dr Robledo. While farmers in Semporna, Malaysia receive US$500 per megaton, this price increases to US$3,450 by the time the product is sold in the supermarket.
Dr Robledo predicted that the cultivation of Kappaphycus will expand significantly within existing and new international locations. He suggested a number of activities that could reduce the environmental impacts of seaweed farming, including:
- Disposing of plastic waste from the farms in an appropriate manner
- Locating farms over sandy areas rather than live coral
- Ensuring that anchor lines are not tied to live coral
- Ensuring that existing sea grasses are retained in cultivated areas
- Relocating existing herbivores outside the farm rather than killing them
Dr Robledo said sustainable seaweed farming could be facilitated through:
- Government- and NGO-supported cooperatives
- Education and quarantine measures
- Ethical companies that direct more of the value chain profit to farmers
- Direct integration aamong different stakeholders
More than adjectives are needed if we envision sustainability and a healthy planet
The Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ) was founded in 1992 by Dr Suzana Padua, her husband, and a dedicated team of conservationists to save the endangered black-lion tamarin. The centre currently has more than 100 staff members and operates in six Brazilian regions. Recognizing the need for a field strategy and the inseparability of conservation and community empowerment, Padua developed a model that integrates both science and community participation. Based on a single species investigation, the model focuses on environmental education, habitat conservation, and policy influence. The IPÊ applies this model to all of its projects.
“The participatory approach is critical,” said Dr Padua. It aims to empower communities and individuals. With this perspective, the community participates in identifying the problem and is involved in research through to the follow-up stage. Dr Padua said she has also adopted an eco-negotiation process where stakeholders come together to understand the complexity of their environment and their options for sustainable alternatives. More than 20 projects have come out of these discussions. Twenty-nine nurseries have been established and women artisans have improved their quality of life by selling handmade crafts.
Dr Padua described plans for a restoration project in a poor agriculture-based Brazilian community surrounding the Great Reserve of the Pontal do Paranapanema. The reserve itself has experienced intense deforestation since its creation, largely due to illegal land use by cattle ranchers, which in turn points to global patterns of unsustainable meat consumption. Community members developed a “dream map” of their vision for conservation and sustainable agriculture. The proposed projects included linking forest fragments and creating “green hug” areas—buffer zones that avoid the impact of deforestation.
Dr Padua outlined several other community projects, including:
- The Stepping Stones Project, which encourages community members to plant small plots for biodiversity
- Conservation medicine
- Community products that educate the public, such as the popular Havaianas sandals
- Short courses on environmental education and a new graduate Master’s program in Biodiversity implemented by IPÊ
Dr Padua said the need for conservation education in Brazil and Latin America is urgent. The region does not have adequate conservation biology courses when compared to the United States. “We need to catch up,” she said. IPÊ plans to expand and add different fields of research and education to enhance cost-effectiveness and human well-being. Dr Padua said IPÊ’s work has shown the importance of sharing the scientific knowledge gathered within communities. “This can raise people’s pride and turn them into allies for conservation.” Sharing responsibility for action empowers local communities and has positive conservation effects. Dr Padua listed some of IPÊ’s achievements in Brazil:
- The participation of small farm families in agroforestry programs
- The incorporation of conservation in land use policies—for example large property owners must set aside a proportion of their land for native Atlantic forest.
- The planting of more than one million agro-forestry trees, in “green hugs” which connect forest habitats—benefitting both animals and resident farmers.
- The establishment of 50 Stepping Stones Projects
She said the Pontal area’s conservation and development program serves as a model for other regions of Brazil, and indeed the world. It has resulted in increased self-esteem, greater community interest for local nature, and greater socialization through cooperative work.