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Ecohealth: Improving the health of people and the environment


Research carried out using ecosystem approaches to human health, pioneered by IDRC in the 1990s, has significantly improved health and welfare around the world. For example:

  • In Mexico, DDT use was eliminated with no increase in malaria.
  • Chagas disease has been addressed in Guatemala through locally developed improvements to house construction.
  • Mercury poisoning was halted in the Amazon, by finding alternatives to the slash and burn agriculture that released mercury into the water.
  • Children’s health has been improved in Malawi by growing legumes instead of corn. 

Ecohealth, as the approach is known, brings together scientists, decision-makers, and community members to work on people’s health by improving the ways people interact with their environment. The goal: improve the health of both people and the environment, simultaneously.

Pioneering a comprehensive approach

IDRC’s work on the links between environment and human health builds on decades of support for health research.

From an early focus on biomedical research, in 1992 IDRC launched its Health, Society and Environment program, which brought together specialists in different fields to explore how environmental factors influence health. With the creation of IDRC’s Ecosystem Approaches to Human Health program in 1996, a larger range of expertise was brought to bear on a wider spectrum of factors.

The Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project, underway in the northern Ekwendeni region of Malawi since 2000, shows how all the pieces fit together. Child malnutrition, degraded soils, and food insecurity are all problems there. Yet the 30-member SFHC team (which includes agronomists, sociologists, and nutritionists) believed they could all be addressed if farmers rotated their traditional corn crops with legumes such as groundnuts and pigeon peas.

So far, more than 7,000 farmers in the region have signed on to the project. The results: healthier children, improved soils as legumes return nitrogen to the soil, and larger harvests without the use of fertilizers. The community’s food security has increased and farmers have improved their incomes by selling surplus crops.  

The human dimension is key

Such success comes not just from sound science but by tapping community resources. Team leader Rachel Bezner Kerr, a geographer at the University of Western Ontario, says SFHC relies upon “volunteers interested in learning about these legumes, who teach other farmers.” Innovative events such as “recipe days” and discussion groups involving parents and grandparents ensure that families know the best, tastiest ways to prepare the new crops.

To promote ecohealth’s innovative research approach, IDRC spearheaded the creation of several Communities of Practice in Ecohealth. Located in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Canada, these networks provide opportunities for researchers and students to study and apply transdisciplinary research methods. They also develop ecohealth curriculum materials for universities, communicate research results, and provide resources for researchers and decision-makers. In Africa and in Canada, the Communities of Practice provide field-work grants for graduate students to apply ecohealth in obtaining their degrees.

A broader reach

Thanks to programs such as these, over the last 15 years, ecohealth has become a field of research in its own right, with increasing influence and impact in a growing number of countries.

At IDRC, the Ecohealth program is now turning its attention to global issues such as emerging infectious diseases — SARS, avian influenza, and H1N1 influenza, for example. This search “for a better understanding of disease ecology to prevent the spread of old and new plagues,” says Jean Lebel, Director of IDRC’s Agriculture and Environment program, is an area where the Centre is anticipates achieving new lasting impacts.

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