Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Women heroes of conservation are also improving health

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Earlier this month, I stepped out out of my comfort zone and went to an event on Capitol Hill that had nothing to do with global health, at least not directly. The event, “Women Heroes of Global Conservation,” honored six women who had done extraordinary things to save the planet.

Truth be told, I went to see Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work transforming women’s lives and the environment of her country Kenya through the Green Belt Movement she founded in 1977 and which has spread to 15 countries in Africa. Ms. Maathai was ill and could not be present but I heard from five other equally amazing women.

The overall event reinforced my perception that conservation and the environment has a lot to do with health. More and more, I see the links between health, climate change and the environment. We heard from these “Women Heroes of Global Conservation”:

* Mary Mavanza, Tanzania, manager of the TACARE program of the Jane Goodall Institute, has helped hundreds of Tanzanian women start environmentally sustainable business through microcredit loans and training. By improving economic conditions among women in and around Gombe National Park, the TACARE program has protected nearly 200,000 acres of forests and worked with 22 villages to create land use plans.

* Suzan Baptiste, Trinidad, founded Nature Seekers in 1990 and stopped turtle poaching. NatureSeekers is the largest employer in her region of Trinidad and has reforested large areas by hiring women to rehabilitate areas that were destroyed by fires or logging companies. She was named a CNN Hero in 2009.

* Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, Thailand, challenged and transformed traditional wildlife management techniques by setting up elephant sanctuaries and ecotourism program in northern Thailand, a country where there were once 300,000 elephants and now are not more than 3,000. Ms. Chailert has expanded this work to other areas of Thailand.

* Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan, is the governor of Bamyan Province, the country’s first and only female governor. To improve the lot of women and communities, Governor Sarabi has increased tourism through conservation by creating Afghanistan’s first national Park, Band-e-Amir, protecting 220 square miles of pristine lakes and limestone canyons.

* Lucy Aquino, Paraguay: I was especially keen to hear from Ms. Aquino, who comes from Paraguay, a country where I lived four years and which has a special place in my heart. As the Paraguay director of the World Wildlife Fund, she has improved conservation and empowered women and communities for nearly 30 years. Paraguay once had had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world in the Atlantic Forest Region, a highly threatened region where indigenous communities have been displaced with the men often going to work on cattle ranches or soybean farms, while their wives and children go to the cities to engage in begging, or worse. Ms. Aquino helped establish a Zero Deforestation Law, which resulted in a reduction in deforestation rates by 85%.

Several speakers, including Ms. Maathai, lamented the fact that the U.S. does not have a conservation strategy. “The U.S. has a thoughtful strategy for improving the well-being of women and girls around the world,” wrote Ms. Maathai in her statement. “It also has a global food security strategy, a global health strategy and a global climate change strategy. It will soon have a global development strategy. But because natural resources underpin each of these goals, there must also be a conservation strategy. None of these other strategies can truly succeed over the long term with one.”

To that end, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and the House have come together to propose the Global Conservation Act of 2010 to prevent the destruction of our world’s forests, reefs and other ecosystems. On June 17, 2010, Senators Tom Udall, a liberal Democrat, and Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, introduced legislation that would coordinate the work of all U.S. agencies involved in international conservation and establish a national strategy for promoting conservation.

According to the Alliance for Global Conservation, the main organizer of this event, health is one of the major benefits of conservation. Half of the new drugs created in the past 25 years have an ingredient derived from nature, according to the Alliance, and over 70% of all cancer drugs are based on natural compounds.

As the most senior representative of the U.S. government at the event, Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero recounted a personal manifestation of climate change: The mountain she used to ski on when she was a child in her native Bolivia is now brown and barren of snow, she said.

Undersecretary Otero said that the U.S. is committed to international conservation, spending $300 million on it every year, and mentioned one recent example — the announcement of a Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation and several U.S. government agencies, to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change by creating a market for clean and efficient cookstoves. Exposure to smoke from traditional stoves and open fires accounts for nearly 2 million premature deaths annually, with women and young children the most affected, according to the World Health Organization. This is one of the many ways conservation can improve human health.

So if you support global conservation, you are also supporting global health.

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