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Medicine not chainsaws: Indonesian clinic keeps villagers and forests healthy

Oct 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Offering affordable healthcare to villagers and indigenous communities living near forests could help reduce illegal logging and fight climate change, researchers said on Monday.

A new study led by Stanford University analysed a clinic providing such a service, set up by two nonprofits adjacent to Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island, covering the period from 2009-2019.

Using satellite images of forest cover and more than 10 years of patient records, researchers linked the health programme to a 70% fall in deforestation compared with other Indonesian national parks, equivalent to protecting more than 27 sq km (10 sq miles) of forest.

Study co-author Susanne Sokolow, a scientist at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said the researchers had observed a strong reduction in the rate of forest loss.

“Importantly, we also found that the more engaged the villages were in terms of how many times they visited the clinic or participated in conservation programmes ... the more impact we saw,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The largest drop-offs in logging occurred next to villages that used the clinic the most, researchers said.

Globally, about 35% of protected natural areas are traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous and local communities, yet they are rarely considered in the design of conservation and climate programmes, according to Stanford.

Seeking solutions, Indonesia-based environmental nonprofit Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) and U.S.-based Health In Harmony first questioned local communities and found that a key reason why they cut down trees was to pay for healthcare.

With this information, they established an affordable clinic in 2007, serving thousands of patients by accepting a range of alternative payments, such as tree seedlings, handicrafts, manure and labour – a system created with the communities.

Through agreements made with district leaders, the clinic also provided discounts to villages that could show evidence of reductions in illegal logging.

In addition, it offered training in sustainable, organic agriculture and a chainsaw buy-back scheme.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the 70% fall in deforestation was equivalent to an averted carbon loss estimated to be worth more than $65 million, using European carbon market prices.

The researchers also measured significant falls in infectious and other diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Monica Nirmala, executive director of the clinic from 2014 to 2018 and a board member of Health In Harmony, said the data supported two important conclusions.

“Human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests,” she said in a statement.

Stanford researchers are working with the two nonprofits as they look to replicate the approach with other rainforest communities in Indonesia, Madagascar and Brazil. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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