Main image: Chelsea Call
I am a doctor who has been focused on the health of our planet for the last 15 years.
My journey began with studying orangutans in Borneo, took me through medical school, led to the creation of a planetary health nonprofit called Health In Harmony and then back to Indonesia to help communities access quality healthcare so that rainforests can thrive.
For all that time, I have been trying to show the world how interconnected wellbeing is on this planet. For example, if a father in Borneo has to illegally log the rainforest to pay for his child’s healthcare, we all suffer.
If people encroach on ecosystems and eat wild pangolins or bats, zoonotic viruses that had their ecological role can wreak havoc around the world – like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now the world’s governments need to implement massive stimulus plans to protect the most vulnerable, what if this is the time to totally rethink how we do things?
Should we be trying to desperately prop up a non-regenerative economic system that was not working in the first place? Our system was filling our oceans with plastic, destroying the ecosystems that sustain life, accelerating inequality and dangerously heating our planet.
In the course of human history, coronavirus might be a massive speed bump killing millions, but the climate crisis could be the end of the road for most life on Earth.
Imagine what we could do if we responded as seriously to climate change as we are responding to the coronavirus. Just like social distancing works when we all do it, so does caring for the environment.
Now is the time to reassess priorities and figure out how each one of us can change the way we work and live to be more in balance with our environment.
Through Health In Harmony’s work in Borneo and Madagascar, we know it is possible to totally rethink approaches to health, livelihoods and conservation and understand that they are intimately intertwined.
Despite rampant rainforest destruction, most communities actually want to protect the rainforests, knowing forest degradation fosters more illness like diarrhoea and malaria. In Borneo, people call the forest the ‘lungs of the Earth’ and understand how critical it is – not only for their own health, but the survival of the planet.
Similarly, I think most people everywhere in the world want a thriving natural ecosystem to live in. We, like these communities, just also need to have our basic needs met.
Through a process we call Radical Listening, we asked rainforest communities what the solutions were so that they could stop logging.
Across 400 hours of listening, we heard that in order to stop logging, the community needed access to affordable, quality healthcare and training in sustainable agriculture.
We collaborated with the communities to provide these solutions as they designed a planetary health approach – linking their health, household economy, occupation and rainforest – and created the beginnings of a restorative economy.
At Health In Harmony, every single aspect of our approach to health is an integrated one. For example, patients can always access care without logging. We do this by allowing payment with barter like seedlings that we use for reforestation, thereby further improving community health.
We also give healthcare discounts to villages that stop or decrease logging (imagine healthcare discounts throughout the world based on your carbon footprint).
There is an organic garden behind our medical centre where people can work to pay for care or learn new skills, and the healthy food feeds staff and patients.
Education in sustainable livelihoods, health and conservation happens in the communities as well. We even buy chainsaws and offer angel investing to previous loggers so they can start new small businesses. With this approach, economies, humans and the natural world all thrive together.
In the first 10 years of our work around Gunung Palung National Park, logging households dropped 90%, infant mortality declined 67%, the loss of primary forest was stabilised and 52,000 acres of logged forest grew back.
To date, their actions have kept approximately 53 million USD worth of forest carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere – an important contribution to curbing the climate crisis, which we are now replicating with rainforest communities around the world.
I cannot help wondering if we were doing this kind of planetary health approach in all our systems, would this coronavirus pandemic have happened? Or might we have been a bit more resilient to its effects?
What might the world look like if we reinvented many aspects of our systems toward a regenerative economy the way Health In Harmony has in rainforest communities?
This pandemic is giving us the opportunity to understand in our bones how interconnected we all are, and how powerfully we can act when motivated to do so.