Believe in deforestation

"As soon as humans enter an ecosystem, viruses spread"

Kinari Webb (48) is a doctor and founder of “Health in Harmony”, a project that integrates health care and environmental protection in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo. She completed her bachelor's degree in biology in 1993 and traveled to Borneo to research orangutans. There she saw how many people could only finance their health care with deforestation. She decided to study medicine. After completing her studies, she traveled back to Borneo and founded “Health in Harmony” in the region around the Gunung Palung National Park in 2005. She lives near San Francis-co as well as in Indonesia.

BMF: How are the environment and health linked?

Kinari Webb: For me, that's the wrong question. Because it assumes that humans are not animals and that there is a separation between humans and nature. That is impossible: we breathe air, we drink water, we ingest food. The belief that our minds are separated comes from the Enlightenment and is simply wrong. This pandemic now shows us how inseparable we are from nature, as well as from climate change: Without reasonable temperatures, without enough oxygen, without clean water, without healthy food, we cannot be healthy, we cannot survive.

How does deforestation affect the health of Borneo's rural population?

Wherever we work, every single person understands that their future well-being depends on the existence of the rainforest. They understand that the forest produces water, it irrigates the rice fields and these rice fields will in turn feed them. They understand that without clean water, disease can spread. They understand that deforestation throws the ecosystem out of balance and causes more diseases like malaria.

What are the effects of deforestation and environmental degradation on human health globally?

Most people know that our consumption of fossil fuels is driving climate change. On the other hand, hardly anyone is aware that global deforestation causes the same amount of CO2 as the entire transport sector in the world. When we cut down or burn forests, we release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The peat soils play an incredibly important role in Borneo. They can be imagined as the early stages of oil fields, in which leaves and twigs accumulated over millions of years and which, thanks to being covered with water, will not rot. However, if the forests on these peat soils are cut down or burned, the stored carbon is released. Trees store more and more carbon as long as they stand and thus absorb a third of global CO2. I want to be explicit: if we lose our global rainforests, it will mean the end of the human species. Because of the heat, the planet would be uninhabitable for us humans as well as for most other living beings.

What does COVID-19 have to do with it? And what is a zoonosis?

Zoonosis is a disease that is transmitted from wildlife to humans. There are hardly any zoonoses in intact ecosystems. But as soon as humans enter an ecosystem, unbalance it and eat wild animals, viruses spread. The greatest threat are markets with live animals, because this is where most zoonoses originate: Here animals from different parts of the world are kept under great stress. Their immune systems collapse, viruses multiply and spread between animals and also spread to humans. This happened not only with COVID-19, but also with the last SARS, MERS, Ebola and even with HIV. Failure to respect ecosystems is fraught with great dangers. It is only a matter of time before the next pandemic comes.

Therefore, the consumption of game meat is now being questioned. How do you see it in rural villages on Borneo, in which game meat is used as a staple food?

When game meat is consumed in rural areas, certain risks arise. But as long as these wild animals come from intact ecosystems, the risk is low. COVID-19 likely jumped from bats to pangolins and then to humans. Pangolins are caught in Malaysia, shipped to China and sold in markets there. This is something completely different when someone consumes game meat from an intact environment. These villages on Borneo have been consuming this meat for a long time and have already come into contact with local viruses. They already have an immune system that can react to these viruses, so that the virus does not turn into a pandemic.

What about factory farming?

Factory farming is also associated with risks, but less so with the risk of an entirely new virus. The rainforests of this world cover only 2% of the earth, but are home to 50% of the species. This is enormous wealth, but also a source of new viruses as soon as they are transported to the other end of the world. Animal factories are also not without danger, because a flu virus can ideally spread and mutate there because the animals are stressed and their immune defenses are weakened. In the future we will look back and wonder how we could do something like this.

With “Health in Harmony” you work at the interface between health care and environmental protection. What's the idea behind your project?

When I first traveled to Borneo to research orangutans, I fell in love with the rainforest and the people. But it was horrible to see people who loved the forest being forced to cut down the forest to pay for their health care. One man cut 60 trees to pay for a caesarean section. I then decided to study medicine and then returned to Indonesia. I asked people what the solution was and they told me they needed access to affordable health care and knowledge of organic farming to protect the rainforest. We implemented their ideas and enabled people to pay for their health care with seedlings and labor. After 10 years there has been a 90% decrease in households that earned their income from deforestation. We stopped further forest loss and 21,000 hectares of forest even grew back. Child mortality decreased by 67% and people were also better off economically.

Based on your experience, what would a global solution look like?

We have proven that people and ecosystems can prosper together. We need to understand that the welfare of the people in Malaysia who catch a pangolin because they would otherwise have no income and that of the people in China where the pangolin is shipped to and the welfare of all people on this planet are related. We all need healthy ecosystems. Many people see competition between nature and humans: "How can we protect the forest when we have to eat?" But that's not how it works, it's the other way around. Ask people where the solutions are and work together. Then the ecosystems and people are better off. Imagine everyone enjoying universal health coverage and having to contribute to it. Imagine that your individual contribution depends on how much you fly and how much you pollute the environment.

Thank you very much for sharing your rich experience with us.

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