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reed magazine logoAutumn 2007
Drying fish
Gunung Palung mountains

An Indonesian fisherman dries his catch in the sun (top). The peaks of Gunung Palung tower in the distance.

THE STEADY PARADE of patients through Webb’s clinic offers an intimate look at the bones of this community. There’s plenty that can be chalked up to poor education: lack of basic hygiene, not knowing how to use a toothbrush, intermittent use of medications leading to the spread of drug-resistant disease strains. The local diet is inexplicably short on vegetables, which shows up in the rotting teeth that Hotlin Onuggu, the clinic’s young Indonesian dentist, sees in her exam room every day. (All those vegetables being planted in Health in Harmony’s organic garden are one potential remedy to the problem).

But the most pervasive cause of poor health here is simple poverty: many households live on around $15 a month. Some of the men in Sukadana (population 12,000) make a living fishing, doing construction work, or trading with boats that pull into the docks from Pontianak, 200 kilometers to the north, laden with TV sets and furniture. But the poorest people in town—both men and women—earn just a few dollars a week breaking up boulders on the beach with metal hammers and selling the rocks to local road-building crews.

People in town blame their declining fortunes at least in part on conservation of the nearby rain forest. Under pressure from local and international environmental groups, Indonesian officials have, at long last, succeeded in slowing down the illegal logging trade around Gunung Palung. A conservation-minded park director now has remote stretches of the forest patrolled by ultralight aircraft. Worried ex-loggers, meanwhile, come to Webb’s doorstep looking for help. She’s firm with them: “I tell them they better start looking for another job.”

Health in Harmony’s plan is to put some of these former loggers back to work reforesting cut and burned areas around the park’s edges. Cam and fellow ecologist Gary Paoli are also working on a plan to sell credits for these local reforestation projects on world markets set up to combat global climate change. These markets range from voluntary ones—where individual airline travelers, for instance, can purchase green tags to offset their carbon emissions caused by flying—to compulsory markets like Europe’s, in which large companies will pay projects up to $15 per ton of carbon dioxide absorbed in order to offset their own carbon emissions.

The carbon credit revenue, which should begin to flow to Sukadana as replanting begins next year, will be used to support the clinic and eventually to operate a new hospital that Webb would like to build in five years.

Cam—reached for this story by email in Malaysian Borneo, as he taught a Harvard course on rain forest and coral reef ecology—says the unique link the group is drawing between human and environmental health might increase the value of Health in Harmony’s pollution credits. “It should be quite sellable: health, reforestation, orangutan habitat protection, and carbon absorption all in one,” he says. “If we sell it well, we should be able to raise a fair amount of cash.”

Even as the program taps into global markets, Kinari Webb keeps her vision of success in Sukadana bare-bones: a healthier population and a healthier forest in 20 years’ time.
Townspeople are already showing a willingness to work or trade for health care. And there have been small signs that Health in Harmony’s staff is entering the town fold. The doctors (three Indonesians in addition to Webb) have talked a few people out of engaging in the national pastime—smoking. Onuggu is told by shop owners to pay for her groceries and café drinks whenever she can.

“I think people are starting to trust us,” Onuggu says. “They want to be healthy and have a better life, but they just don’t know how. They’re learning by seeing.”

Turning the locals into dyed-in-the-wool conservationists might be more of a stretch, but that’s not really what the Webbs are after. They certainly would like people to think twice about trashing the local forest. But they want to keep it simple: complete specific tasks, get health care. Whether people in town fully understand the implications of tree planting or the intricacies of global warming isn’t important. 

“We talk about it in concrete terms,” Kinari says. “They know that cutting down the forests creates a long dry season and contributes to floods. I’m not sure they need to understand the whole thing for it to work.”

Cam has less hope that he and the locals will ever see eye-to-eye and value the park in the same way. “I believe we have a responsibility to save the last scraps of nature,” he says, “and around the last scraps of nature there will always be conflict. At the same time, Kinari is doing a wonderful job ameliorating that sense of conflict.”

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007