Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Chris Golden
Members of the MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research) team that includes social surveyors, lemur researchers, tenrec researchers, veterinarians and human health professionals. Photo courtesy of: Christopher Golden.
Dr. Christopher Golden is an explorer on a mission. As both an epidemiologist and ecologist, he is investigating and expanding the interface between human and ecosystem health. This year, Golden was appointed the Director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s HEAL ( Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages ) Program, a consortium of 25 institutions working to quantify the effects of global environmental trends on public health and turn this data into plans of action.
The role of domesticated and wild fruits is incredibly important in the diet- especially the role of vitamin C in enhancing iron absorption. Photo courtesy of Christopher Golden.
It is his hope, Golden told mongabay.com that, “our current empirical research efforts, will help to simultaneously promote the dual objectives of conservation (of forests and other ecosystems) and public health when their goals align. The type of work we propose as urgent actually focuses on that alignment question: under what circumstances do the goals of the conservation and public health communities converge? Where and how can these two sectors find important synergies and efficiencies, based on solid science?”
A few of the HEAL’s projects include: quantifying how the global fishery collapse affects food security and worldwide malnutrition, and studying the mental health benefits of national parks and green spaces.
Golden has had a lifelong love affair with Madagascar and has been working in public health in the African island nation since 1999. His research continues to focus on local people’s dependence on natural resources to meet their health and survival needs
Looking ahead, Golden feels that payments for ecosystem service are still the “next big thing” in conservation, and that we need to move towards a renewed appreciation for their utility.
“Once researchers become better at valuing ecosystem services for their diverse and layered values from the perspective of local communities and the global commons,” Golden said, “it will be easier to provide a more accurate mechanism for sustainably financing forest conservation.”
Golden is currently a Research Associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, jointly appointed in the Department of Environmental Health and the Department of Nutrition. He is part of a group of technical experts in a World Health Organization and Convention of Biological Diversity task force, and with the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
In May of this year, Golden was named an Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society—a distinction given to “uniquely gifted and inspiring young adventurers, already making a difference early in their careers.”
An Interview with Christopher Golden
Christopher Golden. Photo by: Jessie Zerendow.
Mongabay: What is your background? How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is your area of focus?
Chris Golden: I’ve been working in tropical forest conservation now for 15 years. I went to Madagascar the first time when I was 16 years old after almost seven years of dreaming about it. I had done a school project on the ring-tailed lemur when I was in third grade and that propelled my interest to go to Madagascar. Initially I went to Madagascar to work on an Earthwatch project looking at carnivore behavioral ecology. I went to Harvard College and created a Special Concentration in Environmental Conservation. It was a mix of courses in Ecology, Conservation, Development Studies, and Medical Anthropology. These topics and professors made my experiences in Madagascar come alive in the classroom. Throughout college, I returned to Madagascar every summer- first as a research assistant, then as an environmental educator, and finally starting my own project to look at the effects of hunting on wildlife population sustainability.
In addition to the study of the importance of wildlife hunting, Golden’s team is also very interested in the role of all wild harvested foods, including things like forest mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Christopher Golden.
After college in 2005, I spent more than a year straight in the Makira Forest of northeastern Madagascar working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, further exploring the impact of hunting on species conservation. This long-term immersion living in villages in the forest exposed me to additional perspectives on hunting wildlife—that it was not only an activity that was damaging to biodiversity, but also an activity that improved local nutrition and perhaps presented disease risk. In 2006, I started a PhD at UC Berkeley in Environmental Science, Policy and Management to focus on the intersection of wildlife hunting, biodiversity conservation and human livelihoods and health. In addition to my PhD, I also received a Masters in Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology with a focus on nutrition. During this time, I started a local research organization in Madagascar called MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research), which means “strong” in Malagasy—the native language of Madagascar. In 2011, I started a post-doctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Center for the Environment which ended in 2013, and I then became affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health: a visiting scientist in the Department of Nutrition and a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health.
Over the past 10 years, I have tried to quantitatively understand the role of global environmental mega-trends, like wildlife population collapse and land-use change, in affecting human health. Specifically, I have been interested in subsistence hunters’ sustainable access to wildlife and children’s nutritional needs and thus cognitive and physical development (particularly as related to iron and key micronutrient deficiencies). My research into traditional medicines, pica and geophagy, and wildlife hunting and nutrition, is representative of some of the types of research that would fall under this umbrella. In January, I became the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s HEAL (Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) Program, a 25-institution consortium invested in creating an empirical basis for understanding the relationships between environmental change and human health. This organization is doing some amazing work in this arena: 1) fires in Sumatra and smoke-related cardiopulmonary illness in the broader downwind Southeast Asian “healthshed”; 2) upland deforestation and erosion on islands like Fiji and waterborne diarrheal diseases such as typhoid in children, and downstream coral reef health and productivity; 3) deforestation patterns and malaria in the Amazon and other major forest systems; and 4) community access to marine protected areas, food security, income to purchase health services, and the psychological dimensions of having a “sense of place” related to secure coastal resource tenure.
Mongabay: In your recent PNAS paper (Myers et al., 2013), you address innovations in the field of environmental health. How does this field need to adjust to our current global situation? How does your research represent emerging innovation in forest conservation?
The paths to many of the forest communities in are very demanding physically. A cold chain for blood samples using liquid nitrogen must be hiked in from the coast where the road ends. Photo by: Christopher Golden/WCS.
Chris Golden: Our recent PNAS paper was innovative in that it tries to flip the traditional field of environmental health on its head. Rather than viewing the environment as a risk factor, as a source of pollution or toxins, we suggested that there are myriad ways of viewing intact environments as a source of good health. Additionally, we provided a framework to use production functions to link specific changes in the environment to specific human health outcomes. This represents a much-needed push from the environmental community to broaden its constituencies of who cares about the environment. Our hope is that our paper, and our current empirical research efforts, will help to simultaneously promote the dual objectives of conservation (of forests and other ecosystems) and public health when their goals align. The type of work we propose as urgent actually focuses on that alignment question: under what circumstances do the goals of the conservation and public health communities converge? Where and how can these two sectors find important synergies and efficiencies, based on solid science?
Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest development or developments over the past decade in tropical forest conservation?
Chris Golden: Although this began occurring nearly 20-30 years ago, there has been much greater focus on the decentralization of conservation over the past decade and I believe that this departure from strict ‘preservationism’ will allow for better and more effective conservation. Although there are many examples of where community-based conservation (CBC) does not work and why, I see it as my job and the job of other researchers to figure out how we can improve CBC. Without the full support of local people and an honest effort to integrate local needs (such as health) into conservation planning, I do not see a hopeful future for biodiversity conservation.
Mongabay: What’s the next big thing in forest conservation? What approaches or ideas are emerging or have recently emerged? What will be the catalyst for the next big breakthrough?
Women’s group enrolled in the health project. They are wearing ‘lambahoany’ (sarongs) given to each household. Each ‘lambahoany’ always has a Malagasy proverb. This one says ‘Ny atiala velogno dia loharanon’ny fahasalamanan-tena’ (A living forest is the source of your own health). Photo courtesy of Christopher Golden.
Chris Golden: The next big thing in forest conservation will be a renewed appreciation for the utility of PES (payment for ecosystem services). Once researchers become better at valuing ecosystem services for their diverse and layered values from the perspective of local communities and the global commons, it will be easier to provide a more accurate mechanism for sustainably financing forest conservation. A main reason why PES has not been as successful in the past is that it has not accurately valued local conceptions of value and has failed to understand the diversity of values. Once these failures are addressed, PES will become more broadly accepted in the future.
Mongabay: What isn’t working in conservation but is still receiving unwarranted levels of support?
Chris Golden: I think that the time horizon for conservation planning is a major flaw in our system for protecting wildlife and wild places. There is a genuine need to think holistically about ecosystems, their diversity and the ecosystem services that they provide and the time over which future threats will result in changes to these things. Given current trajectories in climate change and land-use change, our efforts should focus on landscape level ecosystem resilience that can continue to provide ecosystem services to future generations. It is often hard to be pragmatic as there are amazing places that may be lost because the threat is too acute. However, the most efficient way to allocate conservation funding may be to plan beyond the 5, 10, 20 or occasionally 50-year time horizon over which conservationists think and operate. Planning into a more distant future will change our priorities of what really matters and where to allocate funding and support.
CITATION: Myers, S. S., L. Gaffikin, C. D. Golden, T. Ricketts, W. R. Turner, R. Ostfeld, K. H. Redford, and S. A. Osofsky. 2013. Human health impacts of ecosystem alteration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 110(47), 18753-18760
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