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Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2007
Village kids

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 feet away.

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 hand.”

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 futures depend.

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.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007