Healthy Societies built from Healthy Ecosystems: How Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are Working at the Intersection of Human Health and Ecological Restoration for a Healthier World

Adam Cross (Curtin University), Kiri Wallace (University of Waikato), and James Aronson (Missouri Botanical Garden) discuss the newly formed Four Islands EcoHealth Network, a regional coalition allied with the global action initiative EcoHealth Network, which aims to increase the amount and effectiveness of ecological restoration throughout the world. The new papers they discuss are published in the journals EcoHealth and Restoration Ecology.

We live in an age of environmental challenges and crises that require societies to sit up and pay more attention to how they function. From heatwaves and water shortages to megafires and sudden floods (sometimes one after the other), new virulent viruses and infectious diseases, salinization where it doesn’t ‘belong’, plastic pollution in our oceans (where it really doesn’t belong), climate change and compromised food and job security for hundreds of millions of people, the combined impact of these challenges on human life are significant, to say the least.

While low-intensity seasonal or episodic fires are a natural part of the ecology in many regions of Australia such as the Kimberley (top left, photo A. Cross), intense, aseasonal or too-frequent fires can be devastating to ecosystems such as kwongan heathland (top right, photo A. Keesing) or seasonal peat wetlands (bottom; photo D. Edmonds).

The ecological and economic impacts of the environmental disaster known as climate change have resulted in thousands of jurisdictions in dozens of countries declaring a climate emergency, including many in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Both countries are predicted to experience a hotter, drier climate in the coming years, a trend already showing itself through ominous impacts on forests and other ecosystems on land and at sea, including the oceans on Australia’s eastern coasts, where coral reefs and kelp forests are showing clear early signs of collapse. In both Australia and New Zealand, aseasonal or large-scale fires appear to be pushing some endangered species towards extinction and vital habitats and ecosystems to the brink. During the Australian summer of 2019-2020, unusually intense wildfires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres) across Australia and left ecosystems and communities reeling: the fires killed 34 and destroyed approximately 3,000 homes, and are estimated to have killed over a billion native animals.

Australia’s exceptional biodiversity includes many unique species, such as the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus; Left), Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae, Center), and Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus; Right). All photos Sophie Cross.

These fires and their aftermath have created a flashpoint where conflicting responses to climate change and its effects are emerging in sharp relief. Strong social divisions have long existed over expanding gas, oil, and coal mining projects in mainland Australia and Tasmania, all of which of course contribute massively to anthropogenic climate change. Debate and conflict over logging in the remaining natural forests has also intensified. The degradation of ecosystems can also cause significant public health impacts. Studies have linked high rates of depression and even suicides in farming communities to the stresses of drought and fire. The fragmentation and clearing of forests for timber and unsustainable agricultural practices has isolated and displaced Indigenous Peoples and communities, leading to conflict, loss of cultural identity, and damage to livelihoods, and has contributed to a rise in zoonotic (animal-transmitted) diseases such as the catastrophic and ongoing effects of Covid-19. Smoke from the recent Australian bushfires reduced air quality to dangerous levels in cities around Australia, potentially killing 12-times more people than the flames did, and the smoke plume travelled over 11,000 km across the Pacific Ocean to South America.

Time for Deep Change

In support of the upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (to run from 2021–2030, concurrently with a Decade on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development), two recent articles by Breed et al. and Aronson et al. bring new weight to the argument that ecological restoration is one of the most promising strategies we have to stop and reverse our current trajectory of environmental chaos. Indeed, Breed and colleagues suggest that the human health benefits of undertaking and engaging in ecological restoration might be so significant that restoration could be considered an economically and politically effective large-scale public health intervention. These benefits might be at the scale of the individual, resulting from direct participation in restoration activities (e.g., the act of working together on restoring an area can reduce anxiety and depression-related diseases). Or, they might be at the population and community levels, resulting from the indirect outcomes of ecological restoration (e.g., restored ecosystems and reintegrated landscapes provide cleaner water, and more health-promoting microbiomes, reducing a number of disease risks).

Restoration projects, such as the Arbor Day planting events of People, Cities & Nature, at Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park in Hamilton, New Zealand, can bring community together and may have significant public health benefits for participants. All photos C. Kirby.

Breed and colleagues proposed five key strategies to help us better understand the potential of ecological restoration as a public health initiative:

  1. Collaborations and conversations. Promoting greater collaboration among scientists of various disciplines, health professionals, restoration practitioners, and policymakers to better understand the links between ecological restoration and human health and wellbeing (including jobs and livelihoods).  
  2. Education and learning. Restorationists need to learn about human health, and health professionals must in turn learn about the real potential of ecological restoration as a public health intervention.
  3. Defining the causal links. Research is needed to determine the causal links between ecosystem restoration and health outcomes, to provide the empirical evidence required to understand and advise communities and decision makers.
  4. Monitoring restoration and health outcomes. We need better and standardized methodologies for the effective, cost-efficient monitoring and evaluation of the public health benefits from ecosystem restoration.
  5. Community ownership and stewardship. A global movement toward a restorative culture needs community involvement and engagement, and embracing of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge.

Putting these strategies into action at a scale required to meet the aspirations of the coming UN Decade means we must collaborate across continents and disciplines to identify and build links between ecological restoration and human health.

One such initiative is the Ecohealth Network (EHN), established in 2017 to bring together pioneering sites, hubs, and regional networks to work cohesively towards rapidly increasing the amount and effectiveness of ecological restoration throughout the world, and to accelerate understanding and awareness of its feasibility and benefits, especially for public health.

The first EHN regional network emerged from a workshop held in February 2020. The group calls itself the Four Islands EcoHealth Network, in reference to North Island and South Island, the two largest islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, plus Tasmania, and mainland Australia. It aims to explore how different sites and hubs with various climatic and cultural contexts can come together to share insights and pursue research into the physiological, psychological, and societal health benefits of ecological restoration. It also aims to advance the ecological and microbiological knowledge needed to achieve effective, durable restoration. The aspirations, aims and issues to be considered by the group were laid out in the Hobart Declaration, a charter document stemming from the workshop. Keith Bradby, the founder and CEO of Gondwana Link, agreed to be the first coordinator of the regional network.

The Four Islands EcoHealth Network also embodies a shared desire to foster support for long-overdue efforts in both countries that work in close collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to make radical changes in cultural, educational, and land care practices. A recent popular science article by Dr. Kiri Joy Wallace highlighted the significance of these aspirations to the public health sector, native ecosystems, and people of Aotearoa New Zealand. There are also many Australian contexts bringing insight and direction to the initiative. For example, Gondwana Link is working to restore ecological resilience to thousands of hectares of marginal farmland following long colonial histories of Neo-European style agricultural use and severe salinization in southwestern Australia; Gondwana Link is exemplary in its huge regional scope and sustained work for greater interaction and cooperation not only with local conservation groups, but also with Noongar and Ngadju Traditional Owners. This effort, based on a vision shared by all members of the EHN, is part of the essential process of “decolonizing” both conservation and ecological restoration.

Other members of the Four Islands EcoHealth Network tackle the restoration and assisted recovery of wilderness areas in north-eastern Tasmania following industrial tree cropping with Monterrey pine (Pinus radiata), undertaken with great success by the North East Bioregional Network; vast regional, multi-state initiatives such as the Great Eastern Ranges work to conserve and reconnect habitat at large scales; and science-led and community-focussed programs such as the UN-endorsed Healthy Urban Microbiome Initiative, which explores the human health benefits of biodiverse green space in urban areas via the microbiome and smaller local studies examining the mental health benefits of urban schoolchildren participating in restorative activities.

These experiences in the Four Islands context, and the insights and expertise of its founding members, are helping to anchor and inform efforts by the wider EcoHealth Network to link similarly ambitious initiatives in other regions and build a broad global network stretching across the globe.

Restoration can and must underpin every aspect of human society, as our health and welfare, and those of future generations, are dependent on the ecosystems of which we are part. If we are to achieve the aspirations of the coming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we need to work towards a culture of healing and renewal to replace the damaging models of colonialism, systemic injustice, unrestrained resource extraction, and ecological destruction. The accelerating climate catastrophe and the Covid-19 pandemic have profoundly impacted people’s lives in every nation, increasing awareness about the direct link between human health and the environment. We need to ensure this catalyzes a shift to a restorative culture globally, toward what we can only hope will one day be a world of truly united nations.

To learn more about the Ecohealth Network or the work of the members of the Four Islands Ecohealth Network, visit our website or read our recent papers in EcoHealth and Restoration Ecology.

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