Healthy Ecosystems, Healthy People: Making the Connection in ASEAN

Although it’s often overlooked, if we want healthy communities, we need healthy ecosystems. In the ASEAN region, rapid rates of urbanization and population growth are putting increasing pressure on natural resources and systems, and important “ecosystem services” are at risk. Natural ecosystems—forests, wetlands, grasslands—provide us with important services or benefits such as clean water and air, food, and medicine. Biodiversity underpins healthy ecosystems, and ASEAN countries have some of the richest biodiverse areas in the world.

Indonesian youths scavenge for plastic cups at a garbage-strewn dam in Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo Credit: AP)

Here are just a few examples the United Nations (2010) has identified that make biodiversity important for our health:

  • Biodiversity Plays a Crucial Role in Nutrition. Sustaining healthy ecosystems helps improve food security and nutrition, enabling the production of foods, both wild and cultivated;

    The biodiversity of ASEAN’s rainforest contribute to the health and well-being of its citizens. (Photo Credit: AP)
  • Biodiversity is “Nature’s Medicine Cabinet.” Plants are used to make medicines, soil microbes provide antibiotics, and certain animals are used to study how our bodies work and how to cure disease;
  • Biodiversity Keeps Us Fit (and Happy). Want to reduce rates of childhood obesity, lower stress, and improve physical fitness? Get outside! A growing body of research suggests that early positive experiences with nature can benefit health and well-being in the long run;
  • Biodiversity Protects Communities. The loss of biodiversity destabilizes ecosystems, weakening their ability to thwart the effects of natural disasters such as floods and wild fires;
  • Biodiversity Keeps Diseases in Check. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction can increase the incidence and distribution of certain infectious diseases, including malaria.

Protected areas are the focus of many conservation efforts. Yet this approach alone cannot prevent biodiversity loss, and because these areas are often remote from human populations, they can be of reduced value to people. Biodiversity protection may be just as important to humans on a local scale, in their everyday lives.

Scientists are developing tools to measure the impacts of changes in biodiversity and ecosystems; and, to measure those impacts on human health and well-being.  These tools can help inform decisions in ASEAN to better manage the region’s ecosystems and the biodiversity sustaining them, not just for their inherent value, but for the many benefits they provide for our health, development, and well-being.

By Dr. Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, Science Advisor at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN