Health In Harmony’s mission and that of their Indonesian partner, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), is a difficult one—stopping forest loss in western Borneo, a region with one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. As planetary health professionals, we seek solutions that address the underlying social conditions that lead to forest loss. But those social factors are complicated, involving issues like government policy, population growth, poverty, indigenous rights, gender equality, and education. Tackling such a complex problem requires comprehensive and flexible solutions and more than a bit of creativity.
Focusing on the area around Gunung Palung National Park, ASRI uses a 5-pronged approach that combats deforestation on multiple fronts.
1. Monitor: To understand the problem and inform our actions, we first gauge the extent of forest loss and its causes. We make regular visits to communities that border the park to check for evidence of deforestation, like farm clearings, logging roads, and sawmills. We also cultivate a network of locally recruited forest guardians who update us about forest clearing activities and conditions in their neighborhoods. We back up these efforts by using satellite images to measure forest loss in each village and throughout the park. Finally, we survey households across the region to learn about changing social and economic conditions. Combining all these methods—site visits, local partners, satellite imagery, and surveys—gives us a complete picture of where the damage is being done and why.
2. Provide healthcare: ASRI’s defining innovation is to reduce deforestation by providing healthcare to communities. When we began working here a decade ago, medical expenses were one of the main pressures driving communities to log within the national park. The only hospitals were expensive and far away. In a medical emergency, families were driven to poach timber to cover the costs of travel and treatment. Today we operate a nearby clinic that meets the health needs of local communities, reducing the costs of treatment and the pressure to log. In addition to providing low-cost healthcare to anyone who needs it, we give additional discounts of up to 70% to villages that work with us to stop illegal logging. Our aim is to turn the financial incentive on its head—instead of logging to pay for medical treatment, communities can now save money by giving up logging altogether.
3. Find alternative livelihoods: Many people who clear forests do so because they lack access to more sustainable jobs. We respond to this need through programs that provide training, assistance, and money to people who want to switch careers. Through our organic farming program, for example, we train former loggers and other community members to make a living without clearing forests or using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. At the same time, our kitchen gardens program empowers housewives to better feed their families and earn extra income by growing organic produce. Our newest initiative, the chainsaw buyback entrepreneurship program, targets logging couples who want to start their own businesses. We buy their chainsaws, develop business plans for both husband and wife, and provide no-interest funds to get their business ideas off the ground. With just a small investment, several loggers and their wives have already become café or restaurant owners, farmers, barbers, and traders. All these programs operate on the idea that slowing deforestation is sometimes as easy as giving people a choice.
4. Educate: Perhaps the most impactful action we can take in the long term is to teach future generations to value the natural world. Few adults in our area have access to higher education, and many have not progressed beyond primary school. Education gaps translate into poor economic opportunities and reduced environmental awareness, driving people to clear forest to make a living. We fill these gaps by operating conservation education programs tailored to all ages. Our clinic patients watch videos about forest conservation in the waiting room, posters in the clinic hallways highlight local biodiversity, and we visit rural communities to teach families about the links between human and environmental health. We also partner with primary schools to teach a three-month environmental education curriculum, the ASRI Kids course, which includes field trips to the national park. Our newest education initiative, ASRI Teens, provides advanced learning and volunteer opportunities for middle and high school students. Finally, every year we provide paid conservation internships to local university students. Taken together, our education programs increase environmental awareness and improve economic opportunities for the communities who have the most to lose from deforestation.
5. Restore: Protecting Borneo’s remaining forests is critical, but the long term survival of the island’s landscapes depends on also restoring areas that are already degraded. Most of the forests where we work, including 20% of the national park, have been cleared by farmers and loggers, and the remaining forests survive only as isolated islands. We enlarge and reconnect these fragments by reforesting degraded lands in the national park. By replanting areas with native rainforest trees and protecting them from wildfires, we restore critical habitats and reconnect populations of orangutans and other native species. We supplement this with our garden to forest program, which helps communities that farm inside the national park to switch from intensive farming to sustainable agroforestry. We provide supplies, training, and money to farmers who want to replace their crops with native trees that provide marketable fruits, building materials, and other products. The goal is to eventually restore the entire park to native forest and ensure that nearby communities are invested in its protection. Our reforestation programs are thus the most ambitious and farsighted actions we take, aiming not just to halt but actually to reverse forest loss decades and centuries into the future.