Forests and Human Health December-16-2014

Closing words

Hannu Raitio
Director General of Finnish Forest Research Institute

Photo: Metla/Erkki Oksanen

This is our last issue of the Newsletter of the IUFRO Task Force on ‘Forest and Human health’. The Task Force was initially established to examine the impacts of forests and trees on human health and well-being, and had a mission to bring together cross-sectorial dialogue between the different players in this field, especially forestry and health professionals.  As the coordinator I am glad that this 2nd phase of IUFRO Task Force project has had direct contacts with many research institutes and organizations from different regions of the world and has established a great platform to discuss current research activities, future directions and opinions related to Forest and Human Health filed during the last four years.  

Back in 2002, the Finnish Forest Research Institute attended the conference – Health and well-being: trees, woods and natural spaces in Scotland. Common interests and opinions related to the impacts of forests and other natural spaces on people’s daily life were discussed during the meeting. Forests and natural spaces can play a key role in providing opportunities for walking, cycling and conservation activities such as ‘Green Gyms’. The potential benefits of forest-based activities in terms of promoting mental well-being and reducing stress were also considered to be important by participants. Based on discussions during this conference, it was felt that a broader range of collaborative research was necessary. Thus, the networks within the EU were established at that time.  In 2004, the aim of the four-year European COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action E39 project was launched. E39 raised awareness of the contribution that forests, trees and natural places make and might make to the health and wellbeing of people in Europe. An increasingly sedentary population, increasing levels of mental stress related to urban living and contemporary work practices, and hazardous environments e.g. air pollution have caused increasing incidences of poor health in many areas of the world. We need to raise people’s awareness of natural spaces and natural elements such as forests and trees since they have been seen as providing opportunities to ameliorate such trends. COST E39 aimed to engage health policy interests in the identification of information gaps in this field and to develop a network of researchers and research institutions in forestry, health, the environment and social sciences. On the other hand, forest medicine has been accepted by “traditional” medicine practitioners in many Asia countries as a preventive medicine for health issues for a long time. Whether or not the forest is also a treatment place for health issues has been debated in Asia, especially in Japan. In 2011, the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM) was established there, becoming a strong supporter of the progress and development of research involving nature and forest medicine.

Now our model society is facing more challenges in the form of increasing population, limited natural resources and decreasing environmental health. The long lived-in forests are an example of sustainable biological systems, which support the livelihoods of millions of people by providing food, water, fuel, protection against natural hazards etc., and offer a range of health-related goods and services from medicinal compounds to the support of our psychological capacity and mental health. The key to preserving these ecosystem services is to strike a balance between society's increasing demands for forest products and benefits, and the preservation of the forest’s health and diversity. This balance is critical to the survival of forests and the health of people depending on them. Furthermore, the bioeconomy encompassing the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy is becoming a more and more important mission for Europe.   

Our IUFRO task force project will end this year. However, the mission to promote the new value of throughout the world has just begun. I would like to close by wishing you all the best for the future.

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