A novel approach to deforestation may also offer a pandemic safety net

A novel conservation group in western Borneo offers healthcare services and training in sustainable farming to curb illegal logging. In the process, the group may have come up with a blueprint to stop diseases from making the deadly leap between wildlife and people, Brian Barth writes in FERN’s latest story produced with Popular Science.

The nonprofit organization was founded by Kinari Webb, who first studied orangutans in the region before noticing how a lack of healthcare forced local villagers to illegally cut down trees. “Accessing treatment incurred costs that were astronomical relative to their incomes, so … medical emergencies brought out the chainsaws,” Barth writes. “One resident Webb met downed 60 to pay for a relative’s cesarean section.”

To get villagers to give up that practice, Webb — who became a physician — first opened up clinics. Then, listening to villagers, the organization offered organic farming training sessions to create alternative livelihoods. The programs reduce illegal logging by 90 percent in the surrounding area and cut infant mortality by two-thirds. The approach might have done something else too: protected valuable habitat and reduced the interactions between villagers and wildlife that could cause novel infectious diseases. Barth writes:

“We need to think differently about how we manage our interface with wildlife,” says Samuel Myers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of more than 200 universities, NGOs, research institutes, and government entities. People, he says, often intrude into habitats because “they’re trying to feed their families, so we need to give them an alternative.”

You can read the full story at FERN or at Popular Science.