I first went to Indonesia when I was 21 years old and it was felt like off the edge of the world at that time, but I must say, I kept being able to hear the sound of chainsaws and I was so angry at these people. How could they cut down the lungs of the earth, the homes of the orangutans? It was heartbreaking, but then I got to know a lot of these men, and I discovered that many of them were in these impossible situations, and the biggest thing that they were logging for was access to money for healthcare. When I learned that it broke my heart. I know one guy that cut down 60 trees to pay for a c-section, like how could you blame him, of course he’s doing the right thing for his family.
I decided maybe the best way to save orangutans was not to spend all my time in the forest following them, but rather to go back to medical school and come back to Indonesia and think about doing a combined healthcare and conservation program.
Conservationists are more likely to see illegal loggers as the enemy, but Webb would find in them staunch allies in conservation.
You know, I did first feel like they were the enemy, but now we have done ‘radical listening’, listening to people to find the root causes of the problem and what we find is that this is a near universal problem, and it’s not even just rainforests, people bombing coral reefs to access healthcare.
It’s one of the only things that I think you will do anything to get, even destroy what you fully understand, even destroying your future.
The people there 100% get it, if we cut down the trees there’s no water that comes down to feed the rice fields, to feed the families. They also see that logging the forest leads to more disease and they want the forest to be there for their children’s future, but if their children are not going to survive, then they’ll do whatever it takes for them to survive, which of course I would too, who wouldn’t?
We spent 400 hours talking to the communities surrounding the park and sure enough, every community has the same conclusion: without access to healthcare they can’t stop logging, and with it, they could, and they were right. Interestingly they also asked for an alternative livelihood, which was organic farming, and we did both of those things.
Ten years later we had an 88% drop in logging households. It worked! And at the same time there was a 70% decline in infant mortality, which tells you it’s a win, win.
When we did the radical listening sessions we framed it as ‘You all are guardians to this precious rainforest that is valuable to the whole world, what would you all need as a thank you from the world community so you can actually protect it?’
Complete consistency from all of the villages, they wanted healthcare.
Keeping forest standing is seen as one of the cheapest and most effective ways to combat climate change, so it’s no exaggeration to say stopping illegal logging in -- park is benefitting the whole world. But it’s also a huge boost to the park’s orangutans, one of the most important populations left with just over 2,000 individuals.
Censusing orangutans is super difficult, it’s expensive and difficult. We had a survey from before we started and it was about 3,000 orangutans and now there was another one done and again the result was the same. Now we’d like it to go up, but we’re very happy that it hasn’t gone down as it has in most regions.
From satellite imagery, we now know we have 53,000 acres of regrowth forest. Not only did we stabilize the loss of primary forest, but we actually have forest growing back and that’s incredibly important habitat, not just for the orangutans but for all the other animals. The rainforest is 2% of the surface of the Earth but holds 50% of the world’s species, it’s no joke! We have to save the rainforests! Coral reefs are also incredibly important, but to save coral reefs you have to be able to sequester the carbon so the oceans don’t become acidic.
When I look at the Earth right now I think that this is such a critical moment. This is probably the most importnat time in all of human history. What we do in the next 11 years will affect the next 10,000 years. We have got to learn how to live in balance with our Earth, and if we don’t do it we’re not going to survive as a human species, and we’re going to take most of the biodiversity with us. That sounds so depressing and so scary, but I have seen that win, win solutions are possible.
It’s possible because we realize every one of us, even villagers in Borneo have something very valuable to give to our world. And the people living in the northern hemisphere, most of us have a lot of resources. We may not think as our resources a lot, but compared to what many people in a small village in Borneo have it’s huge.
There was a father that brought in his little girl and she had this horrible skin infection, she was bleeding and cracked, it was bad, but we examined her and found it was scabies, it’s a little mite that lives under the skin, it’s incredibly itchy and it became infected. We also had to treat her family, we explained to them how to do it and her care cost $2. All of her medicine and being seen by the Indonesian doctor was just $2. The family was in a survey about how much money they had spent on care before they came to see us, and this family had spent 5 million rupiahs, that is $500 on her care. When the average income at that time was $13 a month. How do you come up with $500? Almost the only way was you log the rainforest.
In our clinic, you can pay with seedlings for reforestation and manure and labor and traditional handicrafts, so that nobody has to log to pay for healthcare.
There was a paper that came out last year which looked at the loss of carbon across the world. They found that 69% of the loss of carbon is actually from degradation, which is to say individuals going in and logging, not from deforestation, the clearing of land. I think that the visual image of clear cutting is so horrific that we think that it’s the primary problem, but actually logging is 69% of the problem.
We have plans to replicate this model in the Philippines, Madagascar, and Brazil. We wish we could go slower, but the Earth is not in that situation. We have to move as fast as we possibly can.
We want people all over the world to partner with rainforest communities, and through radically listeining find out what do they need so they can protect the forest. If we don’t start working together on this planet we won’t make it, and if we do it’ll benefit everyone!
We have to think of the health of the planet as one thing. The health of humans, the health of ecosystems, this is a living planet, and it is really one huge ecosystem.
Humans are kind of like the brain of the planet, we’re the ones who can look ahead and think and make decisions, but it’s not clear whether or not we’ve developed intelligence yet, because intelligence requires the capacity to respond to feedback, and feedback right now is telling us we have to take better care of our lungs, of the whole body of this planet.
To learn more about this program visit: https://healthinharmony.org