Dr. Kinari Thomas Webb ’95 lives at the edge of the park in the
coastal town of Sukadana, where she opened a small health clinic this
summer. On many evenings, she heads down to the ocean to take a dip
and listen to the calls of the wild. But to get to the beach she first
has to walk through a squatter settlement. The half-dozen wooden shacks
have no electricity or running water, and the families sit outdoors
over their cooking fires while kids defecate in the leaves just a few
The people here are riddled with tuberculosis and illnesses associated
with malnutrition. The children are visibly stunted and stick-thin;
some of the elders idling away their time on ramshackle porches have
grown gaunt and bony.
“I’d say at least 20 percent of these people have TB,” Webb
tells me on my first pass through the settlement with her during
a reporting trip this summer.
It’s jarring to see such a sick population living hard by this
jewel of a natural area, and it’s especially hard for Webb,
who first came to Gunung Palung back in 1993, during a year off from
Reed to study orangutans. “It was the most alive place I’ve
ever been,” she says, her eyes still wide with wonder at the
memory. This is also where she met her future husband, Campbell Webb,
an ecologist who was working on tree plots in the park.
Two years ago, she came back as a doctor and was startled by the extent
of medical problems and lack of care that she found in the area. “I
had no idea,” she says. “In this town, you’re treating
stuff you’ve heard about or read about, but never seen first
Now, in addition to honing her clinical skills, Webb is testing out
a novel approach to conservation through the nonprofit she has founded,
Health in Harmony. Her goal is to link the health care she offers
at the clinic with protection and restoration of Gunung Palung’s
remaining rain forest by local residents. Already, Health in Harmony
has started an organic garden and seedling farm where villagers can
work and earn credit toward treatment at the clinic. A reforestation
project is in the works, in which laborers will also be able to earn
money for health care.
Conservationists and development specialists in other parts of the
world have struggled for decades to bring basic infrastructure to
poor rural communities in order to boost economic activity, while
ensuring that the ensuing development doesn’t spoil protected
natural areas nearby. In the age of global warming and rampant habitat
destruction in the tropics, the world increasingly depends on protecting
places like Gunung Palung. The elusive Holy Grail of such sustainable
development is to get local communities to invest in the long-term
vitality of the forests, wetlands, and coastal areas on which their
In Gunung Palung, Webb, her husband, and a staff of 13—backed
by a network of Reedies and other supporters back home—offer
an elegantly simple answer to this seemingly intractable problem.
If Health in Harmony succeeds, Webb says, local ecosystems and human
communities will each get what they need to survive.