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Environmental pollutants from many different sources contaminate water, air, and land, putting humans and ecosystems at risk, and often pitting people against industry. By viewing competing interests and their implications within a broad ecosystem analysis, ecohealth approaches strive to protect health while balancing the needs of various stakeholders and contributing to safeguarding the ecosystem.

The challenge

Worldwide, thousands of different types of chemicals pose serious risks to human and ecosystems’ health. Populations in developing countries are especially at risk because of often inadequate knowledge, lack of appropriate regulation and enforcement as well as barriers to accessing “cleaner” technologies. People often have little capacity to protect themselves and their voices are not heard in political discussions.

Economic development is clearly essential for communities’ livelihoods and the well-being of nations, but is often a source of harmful environmental pollution. Everyday human activities such as cooking, heating, and transportation also produce pollutants. The poor and underprivileged are especially vulnerable.

Humans are paying the price of these pollutants on many levels: from direct harm to health through cancer, neurological impairment, and other ailments, to contamination of the food chain and the failing capacity of ecosystems to absorb wastes and provide the essentials for life. These complex and urgent problems require innovative, flexible, and action-oriented approaches to finding solutions.

What’s happening?

Responding to the challenge, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supports ecohealth research and networks to develop sustainable responses to environmental pollution. Ecohealth projects generate sound scientific knowledge and build capacity of local researchers and communities, while seeking to influence policies to effectively improve human health and protect developing country communities from environmental pollution.

Projects in Mexico, Ecuador, and India illustrate such achievements.

Generating knowledge

IDRC-supported researchers have successfully applied ecohealth approaches across the developing world to produce knowledge to a number of environmental pollution issues.

Making the links between manganese pollution and neurological impairment in Mexico

In the district of Molango, Mexico, rich natural deposits of manganese have been mined since the 1960s. Relationships between the mining company and surrounding communities have deteriorated over time as local populations experienced lower production from their traditional agricultural livelihoods and attributed them to dust and smoke emissions from the mines. Many families blamed the company for their polluted environment and health problems.

In 2002, a team of ecohealth researchers began a study of the transport of manganese through different components of the ecosystem and, ultimately, its impacts on human health. They discovered that exposure to contaminated air, rather than water or food, was the culprit. They traced the path of manganese from mine smokestacks, through wind and dust, and even from trucking corridors, right into people’s homes. The team showed that exposure to manganese led to motor skill damage in adults, especially in women. The project further identified nervous system risks in children. These findings led to concrete changes in local policies as explained in more detail below.

Mining for knowledge in Ecuador

In the Puyango River basin in Ecuador, smallscale gold mining is common. Due to rudimentary technology and lack of regulation, gold mining activities are inefficient, hazardous, pollute the environment, and contribute to the vulnerability of the population.

Smelting gold ore releases many toxic heavy metals. Researchers first determined upstream and downstream population exposures to mercury and lead. They expected downstream populations to be exposed, through their consumption of fish, to mercury released by upstream mining activities. In the Amazon, previous IDRC-funded research had demonstrated that naturally occurring mercury is released from the soil by erosion following deforestation, and is then washed into the river, where it is transformed into toxic methyl mercury, which accumulates in the aquatic food chain. But this was not observed in the Puyango River. The study documented that workers in gold ore processing plants upstream were the ones being exposed to mercury through the amalgamation and burning processes.

Water and fish consumption in downstream communities were associated with nervous system and learning problems. Rather than being caused by mercury poisoning, these problems could be linked to lead and manganese present in the river. The study investigated other sources of lead exposure. Again, upstream ore-smelting industries were implicated as an exposure source for workers, as well as the use of cooking pots made of metal alloys containing lead in both upstream and downstream communities. Arsenic was also found in the Puyango River.

The research showed that heavy metal pollution of the Puyango River basin was clearly due to upstream gold mines. Communities harnessed these results to press decision-makers for action.

Stone quarry owners in India work to improve environmental conditions

In India’s Madhya Pradesh, stone quarrying and crushing provide a much-needed source of extra cash for local farmers. However, the work is dusty, noisy, and dangerous. Consequently, workers commonly suffer respiratory illnesses, hearing problems, and injuries. Their communities are also affected by dust and noise, on top of chronically poor nutrition and inadequate access to health services.

An ecohealth team of researchers worked with stakeholders to evaluate health risks and develop solutions. The team bolstered the capacity of community health providers to diagnose and monitor respiratory diseases, providing training and equipment that brought professionals closer to the community. The plant owners also agreed to use the dust abatement technology developed by the project team.

“Because stone quarry owners, community residents, health professionals, youth groups, regulators, and even policymakers have all been involved in the process, it is quite likely that the impacts of the project will endure and grow many-fold in the near future,” says Dr Kalpana Balakrishnan, who co-led the research with Dr Vijaya Lakshmi. Both researchers believe that the community’s capacity for risk management has improved tremendously.

Building capacity

IDRC strives to build capacity of local researchers and organizations to generate meaningful results and promote excellence in research. Ecohealth projects also seek to empower communities to take charge of their own environment and health through the research activities.

A community of practice gains momentum in Latin America and the Caribbean

From an initial membership of 13 scientists in 6 countries in 2006, the Community of Practice in Ecosystem Health to Reduce Toxic Exposures in Latin America and the Caribbean (COPEHTLAC) grew to more than 120 members in 25 countries in five nodes by 2007. Each node conducts its own research activities and outreach programs, while a coordinating group promotes exchanges between the different regions and ensures general management of the community of practice. COPEH-TLAC collaborates with the Canadian community of practice, sharing technical and strategic knowledge.

To build its overall capacity for ecohealth research, the community of practice exchanges knowledge and techniques through workshops and conferences, including an ecohealth summer school in Mexico.

Increasing demand for ecohealth courses in Mexico

Since 2002, with support from IDRC, the National Institute of Public Health (INSP) in Mexico hosted a summer training program in ecohealth approaches to human health. There have been guests lecturers from all over the continent. In 2007, the school received more than 70 applications for the 20 available spaces. Course organizers are convinced that this huge demand is due to the growing influence of the region’s community of practice, COPEH-TLAC.

Influencing policy

Policy influence is a means of transforming new knowledge into enduring change. This can be achieved through the continued engagement of policymakers throughout the research process.

Joint plans to reduce emissions in Mexico

In Molango, the manganese research team and study communities are working with state and health authorities to control exposure and mitigate health effects. The plan includes paving roads to prevent inappropriate use of spent mining ore to resurface local roads, developing strategies to control household dust, establishing more stringent national air quality standards for manganese pollution, and monitoring programs to ensure compliance.

Getting the lead out

In Ecuador, the research team worked with municipal authorities and community leaders to develop policy and an action plan to reduce river pollution upstream and population exposure downstream.

The upstream municipalities of Zaruma and Portovelo have now integrated environment and health management into their strategic plans. In the two municipalities, the research team worked with community leaders and stakeholders to increase environmental awareness. Ecological youth clubs have been created as part of several community initiatives. Two isolated downstream communities have begun to use sand filters to decrease levels of chemical and biological water contamination, while another community now benefits from a water processing plant. In addition, the Ecuadorian government has felt pressure to clean up contaminated segments of the river before moving ahead with a plan to build a dam, jointly with Peru, that would supply water for agriculture.

Future ecohealth work to fight environmental pollution

Global economic growth encourages rapid industrialization of most developing countries. Worldwide production of environmental pollutants will continue to rise as demand for consumer goods and food increases. Climate change will further add pressure on ecosystems already made vulnerable by environmental pollution. These large-scale forces generate conditions that limit food, livelihood, and health choices for poor households in developing countries. Ecohealth research contributes to identifying sustainable ways to balance economic and environmental trade-offs while seeking to protect human health.

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Country Profile

IDRC has supported Mexican researchers since 1974. A strong focus on agricultural research has helped to improve corn farmed in poor areas and to preserve hundreds of local corn varieties.

IDRC-funded researchers have also studied health problems that disproportionally affect the poor, such as infant and child mortality, dengue fever, malaria, and, more recently, Zika. IDRC collaborates with Mexican researchers to address these and other challenges such as fighting inequalities in education, employment, and social inclusion.

Tackling health issues

When Mexico committed to eliminating the use of DDT — a pesticide largely used to control malaria — the National Institute of Public Health designed an alternative mosquito control strategy and virtually eliminated malaria from Mexico. Developed with IDRC support, the mosquito control strategy became policy in Mexico, and it has been replicated in Central American countries.

Several IDRC grants also enabled the Institute to uncover the link between manganese exposure and motor and intellectual deficiencies in children living in central Mexican mining communities. The findings contributed to the implementation of an environmental management plan to decrease manganese levels in the air. Ten years later, results indicated a 50% reduction of the concentration of manganese in the air and significant improvement in motor neurological tests. 

Promoting digital technologies

IDRC was one of the first development agencies to embrace digital technologies to foster development and reduce poverty. The Centre helped establish Diálogo Regional sobre la Sociedad de la Información (DIRSI), a research network focused on telecommunications policy that plays a significant role in influencing pro-poor policies in Latin America. Following an analysis of the Mexican government’s proposal to increase taxes on all telecommunication services, DIRSI identified how the reform would threaten internet affordability for low-income people. As a result of their study, no tax increase was imposed on telecommunication services.

Total IDRC Support

218 activities worth CAD32.6 million since 1974

Research is enabling women to benefit from mobile e-banking.
IDRC / James Rodriguez

Our support is helping to:

  • reduce illegal activities and violence in border regions
  • improve economic growth in rural-urban territories
  • increase quality maternal health care for indigenous women
  • enhance economic opportunities in Latin America, especially for women
  • create healthy food environments to lessen obesity and reduce disease
  • open up mobile banking for seven million families — especially women


Explore research projects we support in this region.

Country Profile

Working with small farmers in the highlands, IDRC-funded researchers developed early maturing frost-tolerant potatoes. In Lima and other Latin American cities, research helped to integrate urban agriculture into municipal development plans, boosting food security.

Our support has also focused on the link between agriculture and health. Tests in rice paddies in Northern Peru have shown that intermittent irrigation reduces the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Not only did the number of mosquito larvae decrease by 80–85%, farmers also conserved water and increased rice yields by up to 25%.

Following this success, we funded research on how to spread this safer and more profitable farming technique. In July 2014, the Government of Peru endorsed the project’s broader implementation through a presidential decree.

Evidence-based policy

Peruvians are reaping the benefits of IDRC support to the Economic and Social Research Consortium, including improved labour laws and unemployment insurance, and stronger consumer protection. Peru’s leaders rely on the Consortium’s expert advice when setting policy to promote micro and small business development, to manage natural resources, and to keep citizens safe.

The Consortium has grown from a handful of institutes in Lima to astrong national network of 48 members, including Peru’s most prestigious universities. IDRC and Global Affairs Canada have supported many of their research activities.

Protecting indigenous knowledge

IDRC-supported research has also focused on the Amazon rainforest, which covers half of Peru. For example, researchers addressed the need to protect indigenous knowledge from unlawful use, and ensure continued access to useful plants. The group worked with the patent office to establish procedures that biotech companies follow to patent genetic material found in plants and crops, and related traditional knowledge.

Total IDRC Support

342 activities worth CAD86.5 million since 1974

A farmer holds up chiles.

Our support is helping to: 

  • give vulnerable women and youth access to financial institutions
  • address the lack of public health services
  • establish local scientific research capabilities for development
  • promote innovative irrigation techniques to limit malaria outbreaks


Explore research projects we support in this region.

Top image: Ishan Khosla / Flickr