Public health benefits of tropical forest conservation

NUS researchers have found empirical evidence linking deforestation and health outcomes, with implications for public health and environmental conservation.

The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health argues that environmental degradation may pose new and significant public health risks. However, empirical evidence showing the impacts of deforestation and environmental protection on public health is scarce. In a recent study, a research team including Prof Roman CARRASCO and his research assistant, Mr Thomas PIENKOWSKI from the Department of Biological Sciences, NUS performed a detailed analysis on the link between child health outcomes and deforestation.  The data was obtained from 35,547 households in 1,766 communities across deforestation gradients in Cambodia over a 10-year period (2005-2014). Their study showed that the loss of dense forest is associated with an increased risk of diarrhoea, fever and acute respiratory infection in children. Their analysis also showed that having protected area cover is linked to a decreased risk of diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection. These results suggest that the public health impacts of deforestation should be accounted for when assessing the net health effects of land use change.

Common diseases and conditions such as malaria and diarrhoea remain the leading causes of childhood mortality globally. Most research investigating the impact of deforestation on human health focuses on a single disease. However, such disease-specific research, although highly valuable, may be challenging for land planners to effectively integrate into their policies. “Although we have growing evidence that deforestation can undermine some health-related ecosystem processes, there is little research on the role of conservation in health. Protected forests, for example, may provide both costs and benefits to public health,” said Mr Pienkowski.

This study provides empirical evidence that deforestation in tropical regions is associated with an increased risk of leading causes of childhood mortality. It also highlights the potential importance of healthy forest conservation and protected areas for health, especially in low-resourced settings, adding to a small but growing body of evidence for policymakers to assess trade-offs in land use planning.

Prof Carrasco said, “Our study points towards clear negative implications of deforestation on child health. These results, together with the importance of tropical forests for global biodiversity, show that the benefits from forests to local communities are an important aspect that should be fully factored into land use decisions in the tropics.”


Photo shows tropical deforestation and subsequent erosion in Malaysian Borneo. Tropical deforestation alters the water cycle of ecosystems, increasing erosion and water runoff that may affect the quality of the water and subsequent prevalence of diarrhoea downstream.


Pienkowski T*; Dickens BL; Sun H; Carrasco LR, “Empirical evidence of the public health benefits of tropical forest conservation in Cambodia: a generalised linear mixed-effects model analysis” THE LANCET PLANETARY HEALTH Volume: 1 Issue: 5 Pages: e180-e187. DOI: Published: 2017.

Link to the paper: (open access).