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Human health and forestry go together

The Forest Europe Expert Group on Human Health and Well-being has published a book that summarizes current knowledge on the health benefits of forests and integration of social aspects of forests into sustainable forest management (SFM). The publication presents evidence on the health benefits of forests, and shares concepts and approaches for utilizing the beneficial effects of forests. Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

It highlights that the capacity of forests to contribute to health and wellbeing enables the forestry sector to be considered in key national objectives and strategies as well as World Health Organisation (WHO) action plans and the SDG.

The book titled, ‘Human Health and Sustainable Forest Management,’ argues that health and well-being benefits and other social functions of forests, including forest education, recreation and spiritual experience, are an “increasingly important part of the values that people derive from forests.”

It highlights the role of forest ecosystem services in creating healthy living environments, from maintaining water quality and soil fertility to helping control erosion, but cautions that there are trade offs between maintaining service provision and timber production.

Within this context, the publication argues for forest policies that respond to global challenges, demographic changes and other trends to increase the preparedness of the forest sector to meet the needs of growing urban populations, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Strategic Plan for Forests (UNSPF) 2017-2030 and the EU Forest Strategy.

According to research presented in the book, there is strong evidence that forests improve mood and attention and can lead to positive changes in cardiovascular risk factors, among many other benefits.

The publication presents five key mechanisms for the health benefits of forests:

  1. reduced exposure to noise and air pollution;
  2. increased physical activity and reduction in obesity rates;
  3. strengthening the immune system through contact with nature;
  4. stress reduction and psychological and physiological restoration; and
  5. better social contacts, including strengthening relationships, developing new relationships and participation and community building.

European countries are already creating and developing interventions and programs to encourage populations to use forests for health and well-being. Some interventions target individuals or populations with behavioural, emotional, physical or mental problems, such as forest therapy walks, while others focus on promoting health, such as healing forest trails and wellness paths.

Forests can also provide educational outdoor opportunities with indirect health benefits, such as through forest schools and field trips.

The publication shares recommendations for integrating human health into SFM. These include:

  • encouragement of public participation and inclusivity in forest management planning;
  • enhancement of cross-sectoral cooperation, such as cooperation across health, education, recreation, sport and tourism sectors; investment in research, innovation and skills development;
  • communication to improve public understanding of forests and minimize conflicts in the management and use of forested areas; and
  • development of schemes for monitoring the health benefits of outdoor recreation and other benefits as well as measuring the supply of forests and other natural areas.

The book advocates for developing and applying mechanisms and funding for the long-term provision of forest ecosystem services for health and social benefits, such as through payments for ecosystem services (PES).

Forest Europe established the expert group within the framework of its Work Program 2016-2020, following the outcomes of the Seventh Ministerial Conference. The Governments of Slovakia, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Turkey supported implementation of the Work Program.