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The first two parts of this series outlined the conservation challenges in Borneo and our efforts to combat deforestation by engaging communities. The question now is whether our solutions work. But when dealing with issues that combine economics, health care, social justice, and conservation biology, how do you measure progress? Planetary health is an emerging discipline and we are using methods that have not been tried before. So there aren’t many clear benchmarks for comparison.
We can start by asking what success would look like. For Health In Harmony’s Indonesian partner, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), complete success would mean 1) zero deforestation in Gunung Palung National Park, 2) a return of the park to 100% natural vegetation cover, and 3) net forest growth throughout the region. And we would have achieved those goals by creating healthy communities that are invested in the long-term integrity of the natural landscape. So how do we stack up against those goals?
Goal 1. Zero deforestation: Just three years before we began our work, the national park was losing as much as 1,800 hectares of forest every year to illegal logging and farming1,2. But after ten years of working in the area, deforestation had declined to its lowest levels since measurements began, to around 200 hectares per year. That corresponds to an annual deforestation rate of 0.23%, which is over 95% less than peak deforestation in 2002, over 60% less than the lowest pre-ASRI rates, and 67% lower than average rates across Borneo3. At the same time, our surveys of local communities recorded a 70% drop in the number of illegal loggers, from 3% of households in 2007 to less than 1% in 2012.
Other things besides our efforts may account for these changes—all the easily accessible forests may already have been cut down, the government may have increased enforcement of logging laws, or loggers and farmers may have just found better ways to make money. And we are still a long way from zero deforestation. Even at today’s reduced levels, every year the park still loses an area of primary forest equal to 300 city blocks. But the encouraging trends suggest that our planetary health approach is working.
Goal 2. Natural vegetation cover: By the time we started working, the park had already lost 20% of its area to logging, farms, and fires. We work to restore these degraded areas by replanting them with native rainforest seedlings. Since 2009 we have planted over 120,000 trees on around 20 hectares, with another 30 hectares planned by the end of 2018, and our efforts are starting to pay off.
Camera traps have photographed orangutans and other wildlife returning to one of our reforestation sites that just six years ago was an open rice paddy. Another site that was clearcut and burned to the ground now provides habitat for 70 native bird species, a nearly eightfold increase from a low of eight species when we started planting. But it will take generations for the forest to recover completely. Over 20,000 hectares of the park remain to be restored, and all our reforestation sites add up to just a fourth of the area that is lost from the park each year. So although we have made progress, there is a lot of work ahead of us for this goal.
Goal 3. Regional forest growth: Deforestation has slowed within park borders, but forests outside the park are still being cleared due to farming, logging, urban sprawl, and the growth of oil palm plantations. Saving these forests, which are not protected by law, is more difficult than preserving those in the park. But by helping protect the park forests, we ensure that there remains an intact reservoir of native biodiversity into the future. Our hope is that once the current period of rapid land clearing ends, forests and the species that rely on them can expand back out from the park to recolonize degraded areas. We have jump-started this process at our clinic in Sukadana, where we are restoring over 30% of our land to native rainforest. As an example of how native vegetation can coexist with private property, we hope to encourage local communities to conserve their own forests as well. And we continue to help people transition to sustainable livelihoods that do not involve forest clearing. So while forests throughout the region are still declining, we are optimistic about the future.
We started our planetary health work only a decade ago, and many of our initiatives are much younger than that. Our chainsaw buyback entrepreneurship program, for example, is less than six months old. So for some of our activities, it is still too early to measure their impact on forest loss. For other programs, the links to deforestation are indirect and may never be easy to measure. How many children do you need to educate to prevent a hectare of forest loss? How much entrepreneurship investment is required to prevent the logging of 1,000 trees? How many clinics does it take to restore a landscape? We don’t yet have the answers to these questions, but with enough time we will.
For now, our results suggest that our planetary health approach is a valuable supplement to the creation of protected areas. By helping communities invest in and prosper from the national park, we not only conserve native biodiversity but also give back to the people who protect it for us.
1- Curran LM, Trigg SN, McDonald AK et al., 2004, Science 303:1000-1003
2- Zamzani F, Onda N, Yoshino K, Masuda M, 2009, Jurnal Manajemen Hutan Tropika 15:24-31
3- Margono BA, Potapov PV, Turubanova S et al., 2014, Nature Climate Change 4:730-735