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Kinari Webb transforms medical payment system to protect Borneo orangutan habitats

10 Mar 2018
IWD Landscape Laurel in focus

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, Landscapes News is publishing a series of stories honoring women with a laurel for their dedication to improving the landscape. In this profile, Landscapes News contributor Hugh Biggar writes about Kinari Webb. Check Viewpoint all week for more laurel recipients.

Just over 20 years ago, Kinari Webb took time off from her studies at Reed College in the United States to work on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, which is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

A year spent researching orangutans in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan was personally transformative and, due to her efforts, also ultimately for the island’s tropical forests.

“I was horrified during the year I spent in Indonesia studying orangutans about how the forest was disappearing around me,” Webb said. “But when I got to know many of the loggers, I was so sad to find that actually they wanted to protect the forest, they just had no choice. And often they were logging to pay for health care.”

After her year away, Webb then returned to the United States to earn a medical degree at Yale University before returning to Borneo in 2006. After spending a year searching for a suitable site for a health clinic and spending 400 hours listening to input from area residents, Webb founded Health in Harmony  and the Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) Clinic. The two organizations work with local partners in West Kalimantan to combine health care with conserving tropical forests and wildlife in ways that match local needs.

As Webb noted in a 2016 TedX talk,  local people were well aware of the importance of the forests ecologically, but with limited means often turned to illegal logging in Gunung Palung National Park as a way to earn money to pay for medical care. One man estimated he had to cut down 60 trees to pay for his wife’s Caesarean section operation.

The ASRI Clinic (an acronym that means “harmoniously balanced” in Indonesian) allows people to pay through donated items — manure, rice husks, both used for compost for the organic farming, traditional handicrafts, seedlings — or to donate labor.  For further incentive, any village that completely stops logging gets a 70 percent discount on medicine.

Borneo has seen its once vast forests disappear at an alarming rate in recent years due to global demand for palm oil, timber, and other natural resources. The consequences are wide-ranging with rare wildlife such as orangutans and fires from forest clearing contributing to climate change.

After overcoming many early obstacles, including the need to train Indonesian staff — many doctors from the United States have paid their own way to Borneo to help with training — Health in Harmony and ASRI are seeing positive results.

Based on surveys, Webb says the number of households logging in the national park dropped by 68 percent, from 1,350 to 450 over five years. A chainsaw buyback program further cut those numbers to 180.

Other initiatives include mobile health clinics to reach isolated villages, cataract surgery events, a goats-for-widows, program and providing training and assistance in livelihoods that don’t involve logging.

The preservation of forest has also led to improved public health, including less infant mortality and rates of malaria. In the first five years of the program, Webb says, there was a 70 percent drop in infant mortality from 3.4 infant deaths per 100 households down to 1.1.

With the help of mosquito nets distributed to area villages, the ASRI Clinic has also not seen a local case of malaria in the last five years

This success has led Health in Harmony to expand to other places experiencing drastic loss of tropical forests. In addition to a new site in Borneo about 10 hours from their current base, the organization is also strongly considering opening a clinic in Madagascar this year. A similar effort is also expected to open in the Philippines independent of Health in Harmony.

“I actually think this model could work nearly anywhere,” Webb says. “The limitations would be in actually getting the global resources to communities that need them and delivering them in a high-quality way.  

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Honor your “Landscape Laurel” on International Women’s Day 2018



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