Guardians of the Trees

The fate of the planet is inextricably linked to human health, writes Kinari Webb ’95.

Reviewed by Megan Burbank | December 10, 2021

When the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed almost 100,000 people in December 2004, Dr. Kinari Webb, then a resident in family medicine, wanted to help. As the only doctor in her residency who spoke Indonesian, Webb asked to go to Aceh, Indonesia, to aid in relief efforts. But once there, she was struck by the disconnect between NGOs on the ground and the communities they were there to help. That disconnect made it difficult to provide meaningful aid, even amid an emergency that required it. The disaster had caused trauma on a massive scale, such that “every single story was, truly, the worst story I had ever heard,” writes Webb in her new book, Guardians of the Trees: A Journey of Hope Through Healing the Planet, a chronicle of her longstanding career in the world of international nonprofits.

In Aceh, it seemed that aid organizations just weren’t listening, and the dysfunction was so widespread that Webb recalled feeling surprised in one meeting between NGOs when a volunteer from a small nonprofit expressed concerns he’d heard from local farmers.

He actually talked to the people here and asked them what they needed?” Webb recalled thinking. “That behavior was incredibly rare. The standard belief seemed to be: We know what is best for you. We are the experts.”

Webb had seen firsthand that this white savior approach didn’t work: “That is why we had an entire storeroom full of malaria medications for a region with no malaria—and no sanitary napkins for women, even two months after the tsunami.”

No one, it seemed, had bothered to do what that lone aid worker had. The result was that people in crisis weren’t getting the tools and support they needed.

This experience would go on to inform Webb’s work as a physician and nonprofit leader. In 2005, she founded Health in Harmony, a nonprofit focused on fighting climate change and protecting rainforests in collaboration with local communities, and carried this work out with ASRI, a health care organization and community clinic she cofounded in the West Kalimantan province of Indonesia.

With Health in Harmony, Webb deviated from the NGOs she’d worked alongside in Aceh: the organization is based on a practice Webb calls “radical listening,” in which the organization asks communities in threatened rainforest areas what they need to make conservation possible, then actively involves the communities in developing and executing these solutions.

Guardians of the Trees documents Webb’s initial journey into this work among communities around Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia, an area of personal connection for Webb. Long before she became a doctor, while she was a 21-year-old biology major at Reed, Webb was hired as a research assistant at a forest station in West Kalimantan.

Back then, she studied orangutans, “one of the literally wildest things I was passionate about” and a source of childhood fascination. Webb recounts getting the news of her research job over a pay phone at a classical music concert in Portland. Standing on a red carpet in a red velvet dress, “thanks to a free ticket from the Reed Culture office,” she delights in a brief moment of glamorous serendipity before embarking on an adventure into the rainforest involving a “misnamed” boat called the Express, navigating sandbanks in another boat that “barely floated above the waterline,” unwelcome intestinal distress, and sharing coffee with loggers on a sapling platform.

But once ensconced in the rainforest, following orangutans and sharing spaghetti with her coworkers, Webb describes feeling bowled over by the incredible biodiversity around her and hyperaware of the interdependence of all life. “Extreme diversity means that everything is rare and that you are constantly seeing things you will probably never see again,” she says, cataloguing “a fluffy white moonrat, the size of a house cat; a sun bear with huge long claws; a ground squirrel standing as tall as my mid-thigh; a tiny bird so brightly colored that it could have been painted by Gauguin; a green pie viper on a branch that I almost put my hand on; and a troop of half-inch iridescent blue ants attacking a foot-long purple millipede.”

But Webb’s discovery of this gorgeous, thriving world also came with the knowledge that, like so many wild places, it was threatened—by the very loggers she’d had coffee with. It’s rare to bear witness to a person’s discovery of what their life’s project will be, but that’s what happens in these early sections of Webb’s book. It’s no surprise that in her later career, Webb returned to Borneo to find ways to protect the rainforest she came to love as a student.

Of course, she also brought the knowledge, hard won in Aceh, that nonprofits can cause more harm than good if they reinforce colonial attitudes and racism. Instead of replicating that approach, Webb and her Indonesian colleagues were able to discern the root cause of logging in their radical listening sessions with communities adjacent to Gunung Palung National Park, and a surprising nexus between logging and health care began to emerge. Loggers reported that cutting wood in the national park was not a voluntary activity, but a last resort often prompted by expensive medical care that couldn’t be accessed in other ways. “On a broader scale, I knew this was largely because resources had been taken from these communities through a long history of colonization,” writes Webb.

To address this lack of resources, Webb and ASRI began providing accessible, high-quality health care to disincentivize logging, employing a popular noncash payment system that has allowed community members to pay for their care through any number of accessible options: contributing seedlings for reforestation, helping out in the clinic garden, or even making handicrafts for ASRI to sell to help pay for medications.

Webb’s book focuses largely on this outreach work, which, indeed, has resulted in a reduction in logging in Gunung Palung National Park and better health outcomes for the communities around it.

But Webb herself becomes evidence of the link between environmental and human health when she describes being stung by a box jellyfish while swimming at sunset in 2011. The sting, a brutal medical emergency, sends her body into involuntary contractions, nearly kills her, and causes long-term autoimmune dysregulation that forces her to slow her tendency toward overwork and ultimately fly to Minnesota for care at the Mayo Clinic. “Funnily enough,” she writes, “I was even a good case example of how damaged ecosystems can hurt people’s health, since jellyfish have been steadily increasing with the warming oceans and the loss of predators like turtles.”

The message is clear: human beings will not survive if climate change progresses to the point that our planet becomes unlivable. Our fates really are interconnected. It may be hard to feel hope under these circumstances, but in Webb’s work to preserve the “lungs of the earth” through rejecting colonial patterns in favor of deep listening, it is possible to see where her hope comes from, tenuous though it may be.

“My fragile hope was buoyed when the results of ASRI’s five-year impact survey came in and showed that it was actually possible for humans and the natural ecosystem to simultaneously thrive,” she notes. “We did not have to see these two things in conflict with each other. In fact, if both don’t thrive, neither can in the long run.”

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