The Real Reason Deforestation Happens Has Nothing to Do With Wood

An innovative program provides medical care to Indonesian villagers to encourage them to stop logging forests home to endangered orangutans.

(Photo: C. Dani I. Jeske/Getty Images)

Feb 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

On the southwest coast of Borneo, the villages surrounding Gunung Palung National Park are participating in an experiment that has slashed illegal logging while improving residents’ health, which in turn helps the endangered orangutans that live in the forest.

“We like to say that we save the rainforest with a stethoscope,” said Kinari Webb, founder of Health in Harmony, a nonprofit that provides medical care to villagers.

In the mid-2000s, after graduating from the Yale School of Medicine and completing her residency, Webb packed her bags for Indonesia, to an area she first visited as an undergrad to study the local population of orangutans. By 2006, she and her team had opened a health clinic on the perimeter of the park to provide high-quality, low-cost health care to families who had long relied on rainforest logging to pay for emergency medical expenses.

In a community where food scarcity isn’t an issue, said Webb, there’s really only one devastating, unpredictable household cost: health care. “Weddings and houses can wait till you have the money,” she said. “Health care is an absolute emergency, and most people will do anything to protect their family—even destroy what they know is their future.”

Webb set out on a year of “radical listening” once the clinic doors opened and became convinced that human health and environmental health are intertwined. Her team conducted a broad survey of all the local villages to establish a baseline of logging activity. Health in Harmony then established a team of “forest guardians”—men who grew up in these villages and speak the local languages—who monitor the land and all the access trails and roads and help find economic alternatives for logging families. Some of the same families are now working in reforestation efforts.

In 2012—five years after the initial survey and the launch of the program—Webb and her team duplicated the survey with the same scope, geographic reach, and methodology. They found a 68-percent decrease in all logging activity. An independent research group, the Earth Observatory of Singapore, corroborated the dramatic decline in rainforest destruction, though it did not specifically tie the decline to Health in Harmony’s program.

No recent surveys have been conducted of the national park’s orangutan population, but as Webb notes, “No forest, no wildlife.”

“In the orangutan corridor, we replanted (right near one of the villages), our team is finding regular orangutan nests, and in November, they spotted the first one in person,” she added.

Kevin Starr is director of the Mulago Foundation, which has named Health in Harmony one of its current fellows in a two-year program aimed at equipping organizations to scale up for maximum social impact.

“There’s not that many solutions where you can clearly demonstrate the link between meeting the needs of the poor and successful conservation,” Starr said. “Hers is an interesting experiment, where the focus is on helping families who are working to preserve the forest avoid disastrous health care expenses, but she didn’t deny health care at low cost to others.”

Health in Harmony gives a 70-percent discount to those who live in a village where families aren’t logging, and even if there’s logging happening in a village, those patients receive a 30-percent discount.

Starr concedes that trying to measure a decrease in illegal logging and link that to health care services is a challenge. “But slowing logging by any measure is a signal accomplishment and worth trying to replicate,” he said.

In December, after three years of fund-raising, Webb had reached the $1.4 million goal she needed to break ground on a hospital to expand services. She’s also looking for a site to replicate her success, and Raja Ampat, off the coast of Papua New Guinea—a site that Conservation International says has the highest marine diversity in the world—is at the top of her list.

“We know it’s working at this one site,” said Webb. “Whether it will work elsewhere, we’ll know when we try it.”