This aerial shot shows rainforest felled
This aerial shot shows rainforest felled to make way for palm oil plantations in Sabah.

The Intrinsic Relationship between Land, Animals, and Humans

Lessons Learned from the Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes Project
By Isabela Barriga

Long-term changes in climate and wildlife habitat can pose significant effects on human health and increase the risk of infectious diseases like the coronavirus (COVID-19). Several of the roots of climate change can increase the risk of pandemics; for example, deforestation increasingly places humans and animals in contact, which enables pathogens from animals to spillover to humans. Capturing how forest ecosystems regulate the emergence of novel diseases and how that translates into forests’ economic worth can contribute to multi-pronged efforts to reduce the threats of pandemics and climate change.

In the rainforest of Borneo we can see the value of One Health, an interdisciplinary approach to strengthen health systems globally and locally, by recognizing the shared health of humans, animals and the environment. This biodiversity hotspot is home to unique species like orangutans and elephants, but it is also one of the world’s most productive producers of palm oil. The Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes (IDEEAL) project investigated how human activity contributes to disease outbreaks in Sabah, Malaysia by quantifying the economic costs of the impact of deforestation on malaria outcomes and the implications for plans to convert forest to agricultural land.


Bornean orangutan.

Speaking the same language

In partnership with USAID and the Ecohealth Alliance, the IDEEAL project captured the economic consequences of deforestation in the cost of adverse health outcomes and lost ecosystem services. Scientists concluded that the rates of land conversion in Sabah, ultimately cost Malaysia approximately $21 million each year.

“Speaking a common language is extremely important and in this case, the common language was economics,” said Dr. Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, Associate Vice President for Conservation and Health at the Ecohealth Alliance. By focusing on the economic impact of disease emergence resulting from land use change, the IDEEAL project was able to effectively communicate the impacts of deforestation to policy makers, governments, and industry.

Engaging stakeholders at the start

Stakeholders from the government, NGOs, universities, the public, and private sector groups were engaged throughout the project and were instrumental in advising the IDEEAL team on applying their research. Exchanging ideas and building local capacity were crucial for the project’s success and ability to influence positive, sustainable change. Scientists from the EcoHealth Alliance partnered with researchers from the University of Malaysia Sabah and helped found the Development and Health Research Unit (DHRU). This unit functions as a center for research and education on the connection between human health, land-use change, and economics. IDEEAL also built toolkits to develop their research into best practices and guidance. EcoHealth Alliance staff in Malaysia translated these toolkits into the language of Bahasa Melayu and trained local members of the community in messaging. The toolkits used nontechnical language, which allowed community members to share this knowledge with other members and build local capacity.


Graph of drivers of disease emergance
Primary drivers of past disease emergence.

One Health for a sustainable future

Both emerging infectious diseases (some of which could cause pandemics) and climate change threaten social and economic stability. Capturing the economic impact of emergent diseases presents an opportunity to promote sustainable land use policies to mitigate these threats. A great success of the IDEEAL project is captured in a position paper that the team wrote with the DHRU, the Sabah State Health Department, and the Sabah Wildlife Department for the State of Sabahs. “It is important that the governments are already thinking about the future,” said Dr. Zambrana-Torrelio, “especially now with COVID-19 and all the problems that are happening.”

USAID support to the EcoHealth Alliance and the University of Malaysia Sabah embodies the One Health approach by bringing human, animal, and environmental health professionals together with land use planners, policy makers, and researchers. One Health can be a guide in identifying solutions to protect the health of humans, animals, and the environment, while supporting sustainable economic growth and livelihoods.

You can read IDEEAL’s Final Report on the EcoHealth Alliance Website.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Adaptation, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Policy, Climate Risk Management, Conflict and Governance, Forestry, Health, Sustainable Land Management, Partnership, Resilience, Self-Reliance, Sustainable Landscapes

Isabela Barriga

Isabela Barriga serves as the social media manager, content entry and work flow coordinator for Climatelinks. She assists with knowledge management, research and writing blogs. Previously, Isabela provided communication and content management support to organizations such as the United Nations Volunteers programme in Ecuador and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance in Washington, DC. Isabela holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from the University of Maryland, College Park and a minor in International Development & Conflict Management.

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