Forest Guardians and Discount Clinics: Rethinking How to Save the Environment in Kalimantan

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In the southwestern part of Indonesian Borneo, known as Kalimantan, there's a small town on the outskirts of an incredibly diverse forest where the community has turned from illegal logging to stewards of the land.

Sukadana borders Gunung Palung National Park, home to an estimated 2,500 orangutans. As much as community members wanted to protect the forest, poverty once led many of them (and outsiders) to rely on illegal logging to meet their basic needs.

There is a huge global market for paper and pulp and other wood products from Indonesia, not to mention palm oil, which requires the clearing of vast areas for palm plantations, and many villagers lived on less than $1 a day.

Fortunately - for the people of Sukadana and the forest - fate brought them three women in 2007 who founded the non-profit Alam Sehat Lestari, or ASRI. They listened to the locals who told them they wanted to protect the forest but had little alternative to logging, and they saw an urgent need for affordable health care. Thus was born the ASRI Clinic, which provides innovative health services, and the Forest Guardians Initiative, which spreads awareness of alternative livelihood activities, tracks illegal activity, and rewards conservation.

A Community-Based Approach

Today ASRI leaders say they're "saving the rainforest with a stethoscope." ASRI staff have devised a plan to offer a variety of payment options for much-needed health services that include not only cash but payment with seedlings to support reforestation, handicrafts, labor, and even organic manure. This flexible plan offers people options they didn't have before and is getting health care to those who need it most. Their partner organization,Health in Harmony, also facilitates professional development opportunities and global exchanges of medical experts which lends to the strong reputation for quality care ASRI has throughout the community.

The approach is multisectoral, linking health with conservation efforts as a means to empower local people and protect the environment.

The forest guardians, meanwhile, are a network of community organizers who act as a bridge between ASRI and local communities. They help people access the clinic, educate people on sustainable livelihoods (such as farming or agroforestry), and provide information on illegal logging activities in their respective villages.

Currently there are 34 forest guardians, all of whom have been selected from local villages, speak the local dialect, and work within their communities to monitor illegal logging.

In an attempt to curb illegal logging but also reward those who do not take part, ASRI devised a system of "green" villages and "red" villages. A green village is one where the forest guardian has determined that no illegal logging is taking place; villagers from these can get a 70 percent discount for health services at the ASRI Clinic. Red villages are those where it has been ascertained that some illegal logging is still taking place but is decreasing, and villagers can still get a 30 percent discount at the clinic.

"Someone needs to speak out and put social pressure on the individuals whose actions are compromising the future of their communities," says Erica Pohnan, ASRI's conservation program manager. "The forest guardians do just that, and they have made enormous strides in reducing the social acceptability of illegal logging."

The idea was proposed by co-founder Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu, who understood the power of community involvement to create lasting change. "The forest guardians enable us to work closer with the community, and to find the root causes leading them to do illegal logging, and to persuasively work with their neighbors to find solutions," she says. "They know that to do logging is illegal; by giving them alternative solutions we increase their dignity."

"River Forest"

Conservationists say Kalimantan is losing forest cover equivalent to a football field every day. According to the World Wildlife Fund, if current deforestation rates continue - driven by illegal logging, palm oil plantations, and human encroachment - 21.5 million hectares will be lost between 2007 and 2020, reducing the remaining forest cover from 50 percent today to 24 percent of where it was a century ago.

For the orangutans that make Kalimantan their home this translates to lost habitat. The Bornean orangutan was once distributed throughout large areas of Kalimantan and Malaysian Borneo, but its population has fallen by more than 50 percent over the past 60 years. At least 55 percent of its habitat has disappeared over the last 20 years.

ASRI is trying to protect orangutans and conserve the critical natural environment of Kalimantan by addressing the needs of its human residents. In addition to the Forest Guardians Initiative, ASRI manages a reforestation program that is meant to not only revitalize the forest but give the community a stake in conservation.

Local people are paid to prepare, plant, and care for seedlings in degraded areas. The reforestation program has enjoyed widespread local support. Some in fact pay for their health care by participating in the program. In 2015, the ASRI Clinic received 3,500 seedlings in return for health services.

In the Bahasa Indonesian language, Kalimantan means "river forest." On World Environment Day 2016, as we consider the unparalleled threats to Earth's biodiversity, ASRI's experience has much to teach. Continued deforestation and illegal logging are driven in many places by poverty and few alternatives, the end result of global market demand and little attention to sustainable development for the communities that bear the costs. Humans are as much a part of this flowing ecosystem as the orangutan. ASRI, in conjunction with the people of Sukadana, are partnering to address short-term needs for long-term wellbeing by linking conservation and health.

This post also appeard on New Security Beat and Sierra Club Compass.

This post was co-authored by Suzanne York, a Sierra Club volunteer and project director of Transition Earth. Scozzaro and York visited the ASRI clinic in November 2015 with the Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program and Health in Harmony.

Sources: Health in Harmony, Tropical Conservation Science, World Wildlife Fund.

Image Source:
ASRI Clinic, used with permission courtesy of Suzanne York.