As a dentist, Hotlin Ompusunggu is not your typical conservationist. But her NGO Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) has realised the intrinsic link between addressing social needs and protecting the environment — in her case, the importance of providing free dental care as a way of slowing down deforestation.
ASRI developed the solution through a process she calls ‘radical listening’. Speaking to local communities, Ompusunggu realised that local people in the forest area of Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, were chopping down and selling the logs in order to raise money, given the lack of jobs on offer, and to pay for healthcare, which was difficult and expensive to access. As people deeply connected to the land, they knew how painful it was to chop down the trees — but with no other solution, felt that doing so was their only option.
So in 2007, alongside doctor Kinari Webb, she tackled the healthcare gap to tackle the logging issue. In the first few years of ASRI’s operations, almost 25,000 patients were treated via medical and mobile clinics. The healthcare work has since expanded, with mobile clinics consisting of one doctor, one dentist and two nurses — working with the government on programmes to combat TB and leprosy. To date, there has been a 70% decrease in the number of infant mortalities; an 89% decrease in the number of illegal loggers; 1,200 former loggers have switched their livelihoods; and 21 hectares of forest land has been rehabilitated.
The NGO also set up teams of ‘forest guardians’ in multiple villages on the border with the park, which monitor illegal logging and teach others about the importance of healthy forests and ecosystems. In addition, almost 600 people were trained in organic farming rather than illegal logging.
Ompusunggu’s work has five strands: health services, alternative livelihoods, reforestation, deforestation monitoring, and an extra-curricular programme to teach young people about health and environmental care.