The provision of affordable healthcare has been identified as a way of protecting rainforests, slowing climate change, and creating significant monetary value, according to a new Stanford-led study.

The research found that unsustainable logging practices in an Indonesian national park declined by 70% – equivalent to an averted carbon loss worth more than $65 million – in the 10 years after an affordable health clinic opened in the area.

How does the healthcare model work?

The clinic established adjacent to Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia in 2007, helped provide communities in the region with open access to healthcare where concerns ranged from tuberculosis and malaria to gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.

The Medical Center made access possible for thousands of patients by accepting a range of alternative payments, such as tree seedlings, handicrafts, and labour – an approach that was created in collaboration with local communities. Agreements with most of the region’s district leaders also meant the clinic would provide discounts to villages that could show evidence of reductions in illegal logging. The outcome allowed for the preservation of the world’s biodiverse carbon sinks while reversing poverty and poor health.

Speaking about the implementation of the model, Michele Barry, study co-author and Senior Associate Dean of Global Health at Stanford said: “This innovative model has clear global health implications. Health and climate can and should be addressed in unison, and done in coordination with and respect for local communities.”

Implementation at other rainforest sites

Stanford researchers have already begun replicating this model at three additional rainforest sites in Borneo, Madagascar, and Brazil. At each site, meetings have identified the connection between lack of access to quality healthcare and environmental destruction.

Trina Noonan, Managing Director of Health In Harmony, said: “We have already worked in one national park for more than 13 years, and thanks to the local ownership of the programs and the deep partnerships with the government, funders, other NGOs, and the communities themselves, this work will be ongoing.”

Globally, about 35 per cent of protected areas are traditionally occupied by Indigenous and local communities, yet their perspective and guidance are rarely considered in the design of conservation and climate mitigation programs. By contrast, the Indonesian clinic’s success grew out of the early and continued design by local communities.

However, the severity of the climate crisis means the identification of effective models cannot be built and implemented slowly. Programs have been reliant on failing fast, developing new iterations, and working closely with researchers to understand the global climate impact of this work.

Why is identifying a new model important?

The current model for conserving tropical forests – which act as carbon sinks – often excludes and disenfranchises local communities. This failure to address people’s needs can lead communities to few economic alternatives to illegally logging. Lack of access to high-quality, affordable healthcare can compound the problem by perpetuating cycles of poor health and expanding out-of-pocket costs.

Yet by implementing a model that is considerate of how human health and climate are actually codependent – either worsening or improving together – researchers from Stanford and other institutions found significant case declines in a range of infectious and non-communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis when analysing more than 10 years of the clinic’s patient health records

The environmental impact was just as profound with satellite images of the national park showing a 70 per cent reduction in deforestation, compared to forest loss at control sites, an amount equivalent to more than 6,770 acres of rainforest. With more than 100 trees disappearing from tropical forests around the world every second, the conservation impact of the model raises hope for a holistic approach that can have greater long-term effects.

Isabel Jones, the study’s lead author and recent recipient of a doctoral degree in biology from Stanford University, said: “We didn’t know what to expect when we started evaluating the program’s health and conservation impacts but were continually amazed that the data suggested such a strong link between improvements in health care access and tropical forest conservation.”