15,000 Big Ol' Trees Still Standing in Borneo

I'm back in Indonesian Borneo with Health in Harmony and Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), two amazing sister-organizations that are protecting rainforests by providing high-quality, accessible healthcare and offering alternative-livelihoods training for former loggers.

Collin and I stand on the Sukadana New Dock with the wonderfully welcoming ASRI staff.

Wondering why you've heard these names before? I met these fantastic organizations on my Watson year through a series of convergences. In Madagascar, I met the Health in Harmony executive team as they scouted a new project site. In Indonesia, I was generously hosted by Alam Sehat Lestari as a communications and education intern for the month of April 2018. And in Scotland, where friends from both of those encounters merged to present their path-breaking model at the Planetary Health Alliance Annual Meeting.

In 2017, ASRI started the Chainsaw Buyback program, in which active loggers (who make their living off illegally-cut timber from inside Gunung Palung National Park) can sell their chainsaws to ASRI in exchange for support in starting an alternative livelihood.

In this innovative program, ASRI provides a no-interest microloan and technical assistance to former loggers and their wives, who design new businesses. Participants have started fish ponds, sugarcane juice stands, mini gas stations, vegetable gardens, prawn-cracker production, chicken farms, grocery shops, and more.

On February 14, I attended a Chainsaw Buyback ceremony. This is the chainsaw of Pak Udin, a former logger who now taps backyard rubber trees to support his family. He logged for eight years before giving up the profession, he told us. 

Business owners begin repaying the microloan once their business becomes profitable, and ASRI invests the recovered money into the next round of entrepreneurs. Already 76% of business owners have begun repayments. And just last month in January, one truly remarkable entrepreneur repaid his loan in full, less than two years after opening his business!

So far, ASRI has bought 45 chainsaws from active loggers (plus another 53 from passive loggers, who owned a chainsaw and may have logged occasionally, but didn't rely on it for their main source of income).

A rhinoceros hornbill, Buceros rhinoceros, I photographed in Gunung Palung National Park last month. This species is considered vulnerable to extinction. Hornbills depend on large hollows in old-growth tree trunks for their nests.

The loggers reported that most of the trees cut were tropical hardwoods of the genera ShoreaPalaquium and Eusideroxylon, and all were over 40 cm in diameter. Based on how slowly these trees grow, that means the smallest trees cut would have been between 80 and 160 years old... to say nothing of the larger ones! These old-growth giants are critical for the forest. They provide habitat for hornbills, who will only nest in the cavities of big trees. They generate the seed bank for future reforestation projects and natural regeneration. And they store a huge amount of carbon.

Earlier this week, Collin and I calculated the number of old-growth trees kept standing by the Chainsaw Buyback program since it began in 2017. It's a big number! Here's Dr. Kinari Webb, founder of both organizations, sharing the news: