Happy World Orangutan Day!

Today, August 19th, is the first annual World Orangutan Day, dedicated to raising awareness about the crisis facing orangutans and celebrating efforts to protect them and their habitat. Health In Harmony is proud to participate and do our part! For more information about the movement, please visit the World Orangutan Day website.

Mother and baby orangutan

Photo: Michelle Bussard


Orangutans have a special place in our organization's heart: the red great apes were what originally inspired our founder, Dr. Kinari Webb, to visit Borneo. Dr. Webb first came to Gunung Palung National park in 1993 as an undergraduate at Reed College to research orangutans.  When she first arrived, it was said an orangutan could swing from one end of Borneo to the other without touching the ground, but that was rapidly changing. Borneo was (and still is) undergoing one of the
highest rates of deforestation in the world, a fact Dr. Webb observed first hand while following orangutans in the forests of Gunung Palung. The orangutans' home was disappearing before her eyes.

The effects of this environmental crisis extend beyond the orangutans. Human health is intrinsically linked to the environment, a truth that is extremely clear in the Gunung Palung watershed. Deforestation causes increased flooding and soil erosion, threatening the livelihoods of the area's many farmers, while more standing water leads in increases in mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria. Despite this, poverty and poor health continue to drive people to illegally log within the Park's boundaries. The median income of the 60,000 people living in the vicinity of Gunung Palung National Park is only $1.44 per day. When faced with a health crisis and the resulting hefty medical bills, many families have no choice but to turn to the only resource available to them: the Park's timber.

The seed that would grow into Health In Harmony and ASRI was planted in Dr. Webb's mind the day her assistant, Tadin, accidentally sliced his hand open with a machete while they were tracking the orangutans. Without treatment, his wound would become infected, threatening his livelihood and his ability to support his family - but the nearest healthcare clinic was hours away and the price of care too high to afford on his wages. It was then that Dr. Webb realized the local people could only be empowered to protect the rainforest if they are healthy and have stable livelihoods - the idea that would become the core of the Health In Harmony model.

Program ASRI, the pilot program founded by Dr. Webb, Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu, and Antonia Gorog in 2007 after hundreds of hours of meeting with local communities, has now been operating for 6 years with the support of Health In Harmony. ASRI has made remarkable strides in breaking the cycle of poverty, poor health, and environmental degradation in this short time (see our 5 Year Community Impact Survey for some of their inspiring successes). In honor of World Orangutan Day, we are highlighting some of ASRI's conservation work.
Using community-based conservation to save orangutans in Borneo

ASRI's conservation programs are making a critical difference in protecting Gunung Palung's remarkable rainforests. To increase knowledge of ASRI's programs and monitor logging, ASRI created the Forest Guardians program in 2011, employing a respected villager in each of the 30 villages with which we work. As members of the community, they are uniquely well placed to both look for logging and to encourage loggers to seek alternative livelihoods. Between 2007 and 2012, "green" villages (villages that have not engaged in logging for more than 30 days) more than doubled from 6 to 13 of the 30 villages. The number of active loggers declined 68%, from 9% to 3% of the population - and loggers who knew of ASRI were significantly more likely to stop logging! Slash-and-burn agriculture is also declining, while more sustainable and rainforest-friendly wet-rice agriculture and agroforestry is increasing. This is in large part thanks to ASRI's alternative livelihoods trainings, which remove barriers to transition - but first there must be the desire to make a change, which is where our conservation education programs come in.

ASRI's conservation education programs are a crucial part of our ability to empower change. At least once a week in the clinic, ASRI's Conservation Education & Outreach Manager, Etty Rahmawati, gives a lecture on the connection between human and environmental health to the packed waiting room. You can view part of her presentation in ASRI's conservation video, which is also shown in ASRI's regular community outreach meetings in villages around the park - where it has now been viewed by over 2,100 people! We're also committed to creating the next generation of conservationists through the ASRI Kids program, which is now in its second year and has grown from a short summer program into a year-round after school class educating more than 150 children around the park about the importance of the rainforest. Our outreach is working: of the loggers who knew of our conservation education, 55% stopped logging - and the remaining 45% strongly considered it.

Our work is not confined to conserving the remnants of the rainforest; ASRI is also actively working to restore it. Over the past 6 years, ASRI has reforested 26 hectares of degraded land in and around Gunung Palung National Park, planting and maintaining over 80,000 native seedlings. Most recently, we replanted a 4 hectare wildlife corridor, reconnecting two patches of critical orangutan habitat near the village of Laman Satong.

In honor of the orangutans that depend on Gunung Palung National Park, will you make an unrestricted donation to support our work? Unrestricted funds, or donations that are not marked for a specific program, give us the flexibility to meet the communities' needs as they arise. For example, just recently two logging bosses were arrested by park authorities, so inspiring the Forest Guardians that they asked ASRI for funds to visit the Park headquarters en-masse and request further action. Unrestricted funds allow us to respond to exciting opportunities like these, so we can do our best work for the rainforests and all who depend on them. Please donate here today!

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About Kelsey Hartman | View all posts by Kelsey Hartman

Kelsey is the Communications and Marketing Associate at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.