Pulling teeth, saving trees

A doctor treats a patient at the ASRI clinic near Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia A doctor treats a patient at the ASRI clinic near Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia Bryan Watt
04 May
An innovative conservation project in Borneo rewards local communities with discounted medical care in return for protecting threatened tropical forests

As exhibited so clearly during the 2016 Whitley Awards last week, conservation and development now walk hand-in-hand. With the installation of community engagement and education programmes from Pakistan to Madagascar, from Georgia to Tanzania, in order for conservation projects designed to protect forests and wildlife to succeed, they require complete co-operation from local communities. In turn, connecting with these communities can help improve levels of literacy, health, and general life prospects.

However, few projects have been as creative as Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), an NGO co-founded in Indonesia by dentist Hotlin Ompusunggu in 2007. ASRI engaged with communities to find out the reasons why people found themselves tempted to deforest and sell timber. ‘They asked if they can have affordable and accessible healthcare,’ reveals Ompusunggu. Therefore, she and her team set up a system whereby they can improve people’s access to healthcare, providing up to 70 per cent off medical care for families who stop logging. Even people who are unable to pay at all can instead participate in conservation activities such as reforestation or organic farming to pay their bills.

rainforestThe natural rainforest landscape of Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia (Image: Endro Setiawan)

The focus of ASRI’s attention is to protect Gunung Palung National Park in southwest Borneo, a rainforest covering 1,100km2. It provides a habitat for endangered species such as clouded leopards, gibbons, and hornbills, and is also home to ten per cent of the global orang-utan population. Despite these precarious wildlife species, deforestation has become a major threat to the park, as local communities are driven to logging as a source of income to try and overcome poverty.

‘In 2007, we asked the community, if the global community wants to help you to protect the forest, what would you ask for?’ explains Ompusunggu. ‘They asked for medical care, and dental care. Because it was very expensive – that was one reason for them to do illegal logging, to pay their medical bills. We designed it with the community, and we have a system now – if my patient needs a root canal, or they need follow up antibiotics, which is sometimes very expensive, they get a 70 per cent discount – if they protect the forest!’

hotlinAlam Sehat Lestari co-founder and Whitley Gold Award winner, Hotlin Ompusunggu (Image: Republika)

Ompusunggu won a Whitley Award in 2011, and last week was awarded the prestigious Whitley Gold Award, a £50,000 grant in recognition of her continued ‘outstanding contribution to conservation’. Since 2011, she has been able to ‘significantly decrease’ illegal logging in 18 villages, has set up teams of Forest Guardians in all 74 sub-villages that border Gunung Palung National Park or that are part of the park’s greater periphery, and has planted over 100,000 native seedlings to begin the process of reforesting the park.

This latest grant will enable her to continue ASRI’s work, establishing Indonesia’s first Conservation Hospital to serve as a first class medical facility and environmental education facility, mapping the park’s boundary to reduce land-use conflicts, and reach 200 children from six schools through ASRI’s education programme and field trips to the park. ‘We’ve been running this program now for nine years, and we’re thinking of how we can scale up,’ says Ompusunggu. ‘With the help of the Whitley Fund for Nature, we are hoping to work on other potential project sites in Indonesia.’

orangutanGunung Palung National Park holds ten per cent of the world’s orang-utan population (Image: Bryan Watt)

‘I was at first interested in the idea of community development, and how to improve the lives of people,’ she continues. ‘But since I worked on this project, I learned that community development is only achievable in a more holistic way, where we also address the issue of the environment. We can serve the heart of the community, but what happens if they don’t have any more forests, which are the source of water for them? Saving the forest is not just a local responsibility; it’s all our responsibilities. We live in one world, what happens in Indonesia will influence another part of the world. But it happens to be that they are the ones who live near the forest, and they know how to protect the forest. But they’re not able to do so, so we are helping them to do what we cannot, by providing incentives. So it’s a fair trade – it’s not “helping the poor”, but helping them to protect the forest that we also value.’

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