How to save the rainforest: Build a health center

The roosters were still asleep when Sri Wayunisih woke her daughter, Puteri. They could not afford to sleep till dawn.

Wayunisih had taken a day off from working on the oil palm estates and Puteri had skipped school for this trip. The two of them were heading towards Sukadana, a coastal district in south-west Borneo and the capital city of North Kayong, home to the only clinic in the area, some 80 kilometers away.

An hour and a few wrong turns later, Wayunisih and Puteri reached the clinic. It was just past 5 a.m. By 8 a.m, a small crowd of 15 adults and children were sat on the clinic verandah.

It was Friday, the least busy day of the week. Any other weekday would see all 40 chairs on the verandah filled.

Everyone in the room sat facing the eastern wall featuring a large white sculpture of a tree growing out of dense undergrowth, hornbills flying out of its canopy, the letters ASRI carved on its trunk.

ASRI stands for Alam Sehat Lestari, Indonesian for ‘healthy nature everlasting’ or ‘harmoniously balanced’. It’s the name of an Indonesian non-profit organisation based here in North Kayong on the western border of Gunung Palung National Park.

North Kayong is more than five times the area of New York City. The monthly income averages around 2.45 million rupiah (US$181), but one in ten residents make do with just 250,000 rupiah a month (<$20), much less than the World Bank’s $1/day threshold for poverty.

A beach house-type hut in Gunung Palung National Park, Borneo, Indonesia.

The obvious fact is: people need to earn a living to survive. In desperation, many fathers and sons log and burn the edge of the national park for timber and farmland.

Conservationists speak of the park’s 108,000 hectares of swamp, lowlands and montane forest, which together house sun bears, hornbills, gibbons and about 2,500 orangutans. But to local people strapped for cash, the trees look like fixed deposits to be withdrawn in entirety.

For many in North Kayong, healthcare is a dream and emergencies a nightmare. But if paying for a doctor is difficult, at least choosing one is easy: In 2016, there were only 168 nurses, 15 doctors and one dentist in the regency. Five of those doctors and that one dentist work in the clinic that Wayunisih and her daughter braved the dark road to reach, and it is here that ASRI has concentrated its efforts.

Since 2007, ASRI has been working with communities around the national park to improve the wellbeing of both humans and the environment.