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Harmony in the Forest: Improving Habitats for Species and People in East Asia

How can NGOs and civil society promote environmental protection and improve people’s health and livelihoods in remote tropical forests? Two NGOs with innovative programs in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea spoke at the Wilson Center on May 30 about their efforts to simultaneously tackle these issues and highlight their intricate relationship.

Date & Time

May. 30, 2013
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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How can NGOs and civil society promote environmental protection and improve people’s health and livelihoods in remote tropical forests? Two NGOs with innovative programs in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea spoke at the Wilson Center on May 30 about their efforts to simultaneously tackle these issues and highlight their intricate relationship. 

The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project (TKCP), a project of the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo, empowers citizens in Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula to manage their natural resources, improve their health, and increase their food security and income. Recognizing the link between loss of Indonesia’s natural habitat and human health, Health in Harmony works with local communities in West Kalimantan through its domestic partner organization Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) to build their health infrastructure and increase their alternatives to logging.

Coffee and Midwives in Papua New Guinea

In 1996, TKCP began working in Papua New Guinea with the goal of creating its first national park, the YUS Conservation Area. But today, the organization has expanded to support the health and food security needs of local communities, which total around 15,000 people from 50 different villages in the region, said Lisa Dabek, senior conservation scientist and director of the program.

The indigenous people own almost all of the land on the Huon Peninsula, which significantly affects how TKCP conducts its conservation work. Huon communities hunt the tree kangaroo for food and cultural reasons, so “from the very beginning we’ve talked about each clan setting aside a portion of their hunting land, so that we were not going in and telling them to stop hunting, but we were saying there’s a need for creating a sustainable natural resource for them, for food and for cultural aspects,” Dabek said.

“All through Papua New Guinea, in every province, there is logging and mining, but we are the first conservation area,” she said. “It is the people of YUS’s job to preserve the environment for their grandchildren.” However, “because these are such remote communities,” she said, “they are not getting the services they’re supposed to get from the provincial government.”

“I’m a conservation biologist, [health care] is not my background,” Dabek said, “but I felt I could be a liaison between communities we had established a relationship with and the health department at the provincial level.”

TKCP began outreach efforts to local communities, visiting villages with volunteer doctors and meeting with the provincial government and local health care workers.  TKCP also enlisted the aid of Joan Castro of the BALANCED Project and PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc., to help the TKCP team train health workers and midwives. Eventually, TKCP developed the Healthy Village, Healthy Forest Project to provide health training and medical treatment in the YUS area in partnership with the Papua New Guinea Medical Research Institute and district and provincial health departments.

The project provides immunizations for children under five; training for village birth attendants and health workers; and workshops in which they discuss the importance of family health and the links between conservation and health. “It’s been very fascinating for all of us to have these discussions in the communities,” Dabek said, “because you can talk about how you need healthy water; you need enough wildlife in the forest to be able to hunt to feed your family: all of these links that sometimes don’t get talked about in conservation projects.”

TKCP also added training on more sustainable and profitable agriculture, Dabek said. Farmers now more frequently set aside land for conservation, instead of depleting it quickly and clearing new spaces, for example. TKCP also put coffee farmers in contact with Caffé Vita, a coffee roasting company in Seattle, which now buys coffee from local farmers, tripling their income and allowing them to more easily pay school and health care costs, Dabek noted.

“I think it’s so vital to link population, health, and environment with local communities that are trying to do conservation work,” she said.

Family and Forest Health in Indonesia

In Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park, Health in Harmony confronts similar challenges. “In Borneo they had experienced the most rapid decimation of rainforests anywhere in the world,” said Managing Director Michelle Bussard:

Poor health and grinding poverty push human populations to engage in illegal logging for survival. When families in Indonesia must log tropical forests to pay for basic needs such as health care, the impacts are manifold: habitat for rare and endangered species is destroyed; fields are flooded and crops destroyed; increased standing water increases the incidence of diseases like malaria and dengue fever; and the degradation of global air quality impacts all of us across the planet.

To conserve the forest, Health in Harmony’s local partner ASRI works closely with local communities, assigning 30 “forest guardians” from the villages to discourage excessive logging and promote alternative means of work, such as farming. As a result, logging has declined as a primary source of income. Citing the results of a community survey, Bussard said that in 2008, 33 percent of households surveyed said they had benefitted from logging; by 2012, that number had decreased to 13 percent.

Additionally, 78 percent of respondents who said that logging still contributed to their household incomes said they could afford their daily necessities without logging. Fifty-two percent of former loggers are now organic farmers, making more income than they did before. In 2007, the average monthly income was less than $100 a month, Bussard said; in 2012, it had increased to $144. Farming is now the primary source of income for around 67.4 percent of individuals surveyed.

Health in Harmony opened Clinic ASRI in 2007 to increase access to health care. Besides providing care where it was missing before, ASRI also makes it easier for households to afford it. ASRI never turns down patients; they have the option to pay through barter and they can receive significant discounts if they’re from a community with no illegal logging in the last month. The still-nascent clinic treats as many as 60 patients a day and 34,000 patients to date, Bussard said. It also provides midwife training, access to family planning, and child immunizations.

Based on the results of a five-year survey, Bussard said they found that although ASRI is sometimes overburdened, they have still made significant progress improving many health indicators. Child immunizations have increased by 25 percent, and child mortality has “significantly decreased,” she said. Access to family planning has improved, with the average number of individuals per household dipping from 4.79 to 4.23, and the number of people that know about HIV/AIDS has increased to 42 percent from less than 20 percent.

Bussard said they have been cognizant of working within cultural parameters, particularly in regards to family planning. “Operating in the country that we operate in, which is predominantly Muslim, it is a topic that has to be addressed with the utmost care and diplomacy,” she said. The communities requested more midwives, who now “not only are attending more and more births, but they are the liaisons in the community, helping families to better understand family planning as they want to.”

“It’s really important to us that these questions arise organically and are embraced within the context of community and the midwifery training that goes on,” said Bussard.

Creative Partnerships for Integration

These cross-sector, integrated development interventions would not be possible without cooperation – with communities, government, donors, and other organizations.

“This work is not just the Woodland Park Zoo’s or the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program’s work,” said Dabek. “It’s really done in partnership with many different organizations and specifically I want to point out Conservation International, who is one of our major partners, and the BALANCED project, which is funded by USAID.”

When looking for funding for the ASRI clinic, Health in Harmony staff made a presentation at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture that inspired some professors to teach a class on how to sustainably build the clinic without depleting the rainforest. The class was a success, generating an innovative, preliminary design after three semesters that was further modified by Vera Yusnita, an Indonesian architect working for ASRI, and Roberto Cipriano, an architect who left his job in New York City to volunteer time towards the completion of the plans. Construction is still underway on the new building.

Both speakers also stressed the importance of listening to specific community needs and adapting to them. “The underpinning of [the model] is listening to the community,” Bussard said, “and designing solutions in and with communities that are sustainable over time.”

 Event Resources: 

Drafted by Swara Salih, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

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Global Risk and Resilience Program

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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