Hesperian Health Guides

Making Our Communities Sustainable

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 3: Protecting Natural Resources for All > Making Our Communities Sustainable

To be sustainable, an institution, natural resource, or community needs to meet the daily needs of people now while planning for the needs of future generations. All around us, and throughout this book, we can see examples of sustainable and unsustainable systems, from community institutions such as health clinics or recycling programs to natural resources such as forests, fields, and springs.

One of the greatest challenges facing people today is trying to meet all of our needs without harming the environment that feeds, houses, and clothes us, that gives us water, energy, and medicine, and is the very source of our survival.

Politicians and companies often speak of their commitment to “sustainable development.” But in most cases, the word “sustainability” is only used to increase their profits or political power. In the end, they take away our healthy food, clean air and water, and safe livelihoods, while giving us more pollution, deforestation, and illness.

Some principles of sustainability and methods that communities have used are described in the following pages. We hope that this information will help you to organize sustainable projects in your own communities.

Villagers at a meeting watch as a woman writes on an easel, "Principles for sustainable living: Respect the web of life: Work with nature; Prevent pollution."

Respecting the web of life

The natural world is made up of a great variety of living things. The scientific word for the great number of different kinds of people, plants, animals, and insects that live on Earth is biodiversity. Long before scientists gave this name to the variety of living things, many people taught their children about the web of life. Just as a spider's web is made strong by the many threads connecting it, biodiversity depends on the web of life connecting all living things.

For example, people gather fruits to eat, which have nutrients that keep them healthy. These fruits grow on trees and bushes pollinated by insects. Without pollination, the fruit will not grow. Birds eat the insects, and the birds are hunted by foxes. A balance in the web of life means that there are just enough flowers, insects, birds, and foxes for all to live in the area. If you kill too many foxes, maybe because they are killing your chickens, then perhaps the number of birds will grow and they will eat too many of the insects. In this way, killing too many foxes can mean you have less fruit as well.

A farmer hoes in a garden filled with animals, plants, and insects.
An important part of protecting human health, now and in the future, is protecting the web of life.

Unfortunately, the world is facing a great loss of biodiversity, with many plants and animals disappearing every year. Biodiversity is valuable in itself, but it is also valuable in the many ways this web of life protects human health.

Damage to the web of life leads to new illnesses

Loss of biodiversity means there are fewer kinds of plants and animals, and the natural balance among plants, animals, and people is disturbed. This can cause new illnesses. Here are 2 examples of how a loss of biodiversity from deforestation caused new illnesses:

  • Where people cut down tropical forests for farms and towns in Africa, there have been outbreaks of leishmaniasis, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness. These are diseases spread by insects that thrived when water pooled instead of being absorbed by the soil, and the animals that eat the insects lost their forest homes.
  • When large numbers of trees were cut down in North America, the number of white-footed mice grew because their food supply increased and the number of animals that hunted them got smaller. These mice carried an illness called Lyme disease, which then spread to people.
A man and 2 women gather plants in a forest.
People who use medicinal plants often cultivate and care for them, protecting both biodiversity and traditions.

Plant medicines depend on biodiversity

Most medicines are made from plants. When forests are cut down, and rivers and wetlands dry up, we lose many of these plants. We also lose traditional knowledge of how to use these plants for healing.

Protecting biodiversity and the web of life protects our cultures and our healing traditions.

A healthy diet depends on biodiversity

Good health depends on eating a variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and wild foods such as berries, fish, and game. When we lose biodiversity, we lose many of the foods we rely on for a healthy diet. Then entire communities are faced with the health problems that come from poor nutrition.

Different fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Planting a variety of crops promotes both biodiversity and a healthy diet.

Gloria, the health worker with Salud para el Pueblo, understood the web of life. Because honey bees need flowers to make honey, and flowering trees need bees to help them bear fruit, planting trees and raising bees helped the community produce food and restore the web of life at the same time.

Biodiversity improves crop yields

All food crops, including rice, maize, and wheat, were cultivated over thousands of years from wild plants. These crops still depend on insects and other animal life to grow well.

Industrial farming, with its use of big farm machines and toxic chemicals, promises bigger crop yields. But these chemicals kill helpful plants and insects, and damage the soil. If production increases, usually it is for one crop only, and only for a short time. After several years, there is less food and fewer varieties of the foods necessary for good health.

A woman waters her garden next to a goat and a hen house.
Sustainable farming depends on
and protects biodiversity.

Farms can produce more crops and suffer fewer pest problems with sustainable methods. These methods promote healthy insect and animal life, enrich soil with natural fertilizers, and protect land with trees and plants. A diverse crop yield provides improved nutrition and better health for all.

Biodiversity protects water resources

Both deforestation and industrial farming lead to a loss of soil moisture and streams drying up in the dry season. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides run off industrial farms and pollute rivers and lakes.

Biodiversity protects communities

Many different livelihoods depend on access to natural resources. When those resources disappear, poverty grows. In farming areas, industrial farming increases debt for some and landlessness for many others.

Restoring the web of life

In the web of life, when a living thing dies, it affects many others, including people. In the story in Chapter 1, when the people of Manglaralto lost their forest, they also lost food sources and income. When the storms struck, they lost their homes as well. When they started replanting trees, the villagers found they were doing more than preventing erosion or producing honey. Their work to restore the land to a state of health brought back many plants and animals important to the health of their communities.

illustration of the below: arrows point from an ear of corn, to a goat eating, to a goat making manure, to a farmer to a crop of corn, back to the ear of corn, making a circle.
The soil grows crops
Crops become food
Fertilizer feeds the soil
Farmers who farm sustainably use the nutrient cycle to maintain rich soil.
Animal manure can be turned into fertilizer
Food becomes animal manure

Working with nature

In nature, nothing is wasted because everything has a use or a purpose. One way nature reuses resources without waste is by working in circles, or cycles.

Unfortunately, natural cycles have been disrupted by people and industry, and this has led to serious environmental health problems. One example of what happens when natural cycles are disrupted is global warming.

illustration of the above: Arrows show the path of rainwater to and from a hilly terraced landscape.
Clouds make rain, sending water to the earth… Water evaporates to form clouds....

A woman speaks.

What comes from the earth must return to the earth.

How we can copy natural cycles

Environmental health promoters in the Philippines have a saying:

By understanding the importance of returning to the earth what comes from the earth, we can copy nature and protect our natural resources and health. The cycles we create in our homes, communities, and factories are small steps we can take toward improving environmental health. For example, composting, and reusing or recycling glass bottles and tin cans, are ways to follow nature's example by creating a cycle instead of a waste dump.

How industry can copy natural cycles

A man speaks.

What comes from the factory must return to the factory.

Environmental health promoters in the Philippines also have another saying:

Industry causes the most toxic pollution. But even industry can learn from natural cycles to reuse energy and materials in a process called clean production. The first step would be for industry to take back all the waste it creates. If wastes, such as toxic chemicals, cannot be recycled, industry must safely dispose of them, and reduce and eventually eliminate their use. If industry is to have a place in a sustainable future, it must be based on prevention, precaution, and the right to health for all, not on the right to profit from danger, dumping, and disease.

Arrows point from a factory, to soda containers, to crushed soda containers, and back to the factory.
By using fewer resources, and recycling and reusing what they do use, industry can reduce the harm it causes to our environmental health.

Harm from pollution

Pollution is the harm to people and the environment caused by an excess of poisonous or toxic substances from peoples' activities, especially wastes from industry, transportation, and agriculture. Toxic pollution travels through the environment in our air, water, and soil.

Most pollution comes from things we use and are exposed to in our daily lives. The most common ways people are exposed to toxic pollution include:

  • smoke from fires, especially when plastic is burned. We breathe in toxic smoke, and toxic ash pollutes our drinking water and our crop land.
  • smoke from factories that pollutes air, water, and soil.
  • chemicals used in factories, mining, and oil drilling and production that are dumped into water sources, and also pollute the air and land.
  • pesticides used and handled near food, water sources, and at home. When sprayed, they travel far through the air, causing great harm.
  • chemicals in batteries, paints, dyes, and from making electronics that harm the people who work with them.
  • motor exhaust from automobiles that pollutes air, water, and soil.

Toxic pollution causes serious harm to people, plants, and animals not only where it is released but also far from the source. Protecting ourselves from the harm caused by pollution and toxic substances is an important part of sustainability (see “Working for change,” “Toxics in the Home,” “Toxic wastes,” “Safe Disposal of Chemical Waste,” and Chapter 14, Chapter 16, Chapter 20, Chapter 21, Chapter 22 and Chapter 23).

The precautionary principle

In their search for new products and more profit, corporations have developed thousands of chemicals that never existed in nature. Most of these chemicals have not been tested to prove they are safe. Still, they are used in products sold to us every day. Even when people think some of these chemicals might be harmful, if they cannot prove beyond a doubt that a chemical is dangerous, it cannot be kept off the market — or out of our bodies.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Some community leaders and scientists use what they call the precautionary principle to guide decision making. The precautionary principle says: If there is reason to believe that something may cause harm, even if we do not know for certain, then it is better to avoid it than to risk doing harm.

This principle is the opposite of what most countries have now. Now you have to show that something is harmful before it can be stopped. We call it the Dead Bodies Principle.

Climate change

Dramatic changes in the climate are occuring all around the world and causing more frequent natural disasters and serious problems for people’s health. In some places there are more floods and severe storms, and in other places there is less rain and more drought.

This situation, called climate change or global warming, is really a group of environmemtal problems including deforestation, increased pollution of our water and air, and loss of wildlife. These problems cause small increases in the planet’s temperature that lead to big, permanent changes in the climate.

Changes in the climate cause disasters that affect people everywhere. Severe storms and floods destroy homes and crops, drought leads to famine, and insects and animals spread disease when they move to new places because of changing weather.

Causes of global warming

The environment has a natural ability to absorb pollution. But if too much pollution is put into the environment, the earth cannot absorb it. Over the last 100 years, when people started to remove and burn large amounts of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, the amount of pollution released into the environment increased faster than ever before. This is one of the causes of global warming. Also, some chemicals invented for manufacturing pollute the air and cannot be absorbed. They too contribute to global warming.

Black smoke rises from factory smokestacks.

At its root, climate change, like almost all environmental health problems, is the result of unfair, unequal, and unsustainable use of resources. Countries that are now wealthy such as the United States achieved their current standard of living by polluting the air and using up resources from other parts of the world – starting climate change. When poor countries began to follow the same path of over-consumption and pollution to improve their standards of living, it became clear that this type of development would lead to global environmental disaster.

But abandoning this type of development does not mean that poor countries cannot continue fighting to improve the standards of living in their communities. A new kind of development is possible and needed, based on equality and health for all people, not only the rich. We need to stop depending on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals and start using clean energy and clean production processes (see Chapter 20 and Chapter 23). We must all participate in transforming our societies, and those with more resources should contribute more to that process.