Q&A with Health in Harmony

Q&A with Health in Harmony

  • Nonprofit organization Health in Harmony has been working with rainforest communities to improve access to health care, education and alternative sources of income, and now has a new app to directly connect donors to communities.
  • The organization aims to work on intersectional solutions to help communities improve their lives while also weaning them off practices that drive deforestation.
  • Health in Harmony’s new app, which includes images and video, enables people from around the world to make donations to implement community-driven solutions.

How can improving access to doctors and nurses for an Indigenous community in Borneo better protect the region’s fast-depleting rainforest and wildlife?

A new app developed by nonprofit organization Health in Harmony  answers this by pointing to the alternative: “The cost of accessing health care and lack of alternative livelihoods had led these Indigenous Dayak communities to resort to logging and hunting orangutans to survive.”

Health in Harmony didn’t tell the Dayak what they needed to better protect their forests, but instead asked them. The community in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in Indonesia responded with two solutions to Health in Harmony: help them access health care, and train them to set up sustainable agricultural practices.

Eleven months after the Rainforest Exchange app displayed these solutions, donations via the app have facilitated access to health care for 3,000 people in the community. Health in Harmony’s in-house team, consisting of an agricultural technician and agroforestry and reforestation manager, also trained the people on sustainable farming practices. The environmental impact has been huge, according to data from the app: avoided deforestation as a result of this project has kept more than 22 million metric tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

“It’s not charity. This is equal footing,” Kinari Webb, founder of Health in Harmony, told Mongabay in a video interview. “We are giving a gift to communities, but they are giving us an even bigger gift by protecting tropical rainforests.”

Since 2007, Health in Humanity’s work in reversing tropical deforestation was always about approaching the problem from a different perspective. In addition to working with communities in Indonesia, the organization has also worked in Madagascar and Brazil. Beyond improving health care access, it has also to set up schools and enabled people to find a market for goods produced from the forest. According to Health in Harmony’s website, in the past year, its work has impacted more than 160,000 people living in rainforest communities, while keeping more than 842 million metric tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere. That’s equal to the amount of carbon emitted by almost 183 million typical passenger cars a year.

A rainforest community in Madagascar started farming their own food after interventions by Health in Harmony. Image courtesy of Health in Harmony.

In a bid to scale up its work, the nonprofit has now set up the Rainforest Exchange platform and app, allowing people to learn about the communities who need support and to contribute to them directly.

“We want the community to rank their own well-being,” said Webb, noting that this approach is anti-colonial.

Mongabay spoke with Kinari Webb and Devika Gopal Agge, Health in Harmony’s chief development officer, about how the Rainforest Exchange app works and where they see the platform going.

Mongabay: What was the gap you were trying to fill with the Rainforest Exchange platform?

Kinari Webb: I see two major problems in the philanthropy world. One is that it is completely colonial; it is generally the Global North determining what happens and deciding what they think communities need and what the solutions are. The other major problem is that most philanthropy doesn’t work that well in that it’s not outcome-based. You don’t really know how things are going and that’s problematic because you are not actually looking at impact.

So, when I look at the planet, I see we have a serious problem. We are headed for disaster. When we talk about what it would mean to get to a sustainable future, one of the key pieces of that puzzle is rainforests. They are incredibly vital organs for our planet — they contain half of the world’s biodiversity, they are incredibly important for the cycling of water around the planet, they are incredibly important for carbon, not just the stocks of carbon that are in the forest, but also the fact that they are sucking out carbon. So, when I think about the planet and philanthropy, I am not really looking at actual outcomes.

Mongabay: What’s the principle that Rainforest Exchange, and broadly Health in Harmony, works on?

Kinari Webb: It’s reciprocity. One of the problems with philanthropy is that it’s charity-based. The thinking goes “I have everything and I am gonna give it to you and you are nothing and you need help.” That’s just terrible. These rainforest communities where we work have few resources. Why? Because of a long history of colonialism. If they are going to thrive, and if the forests are going to thrive, resources need to flow back to them. But it needs to be under their direction and control.

Our goal was to create a mechanism by which small philanthropy, large philanthropy, and even governments can funnel resources directly, and have some accountability to know the impact, but to do it in a way that is reciprocity-based and is anti-colonial. Sadly, that’s not the way it’s mostly done. The way to do that is to listen to rainforest communities and do exactly what they say are the solutions. And those solutions, in our experience, are all interconnected — they will have something to do with health care or economic well-being or education. Provide them with help in these areas, and the communities usually stop resorting to cutting trees. It’s a win-win.

A Brazil nut producer in the Amazon rainforest.
Melquiades, a Brazil nut producer in the Amazon rainforest. Image by Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: Could you share an example that will illustrate the working model?

Kinari Webb: One interesting example is in Madagascar. The situation in Madagascar is horrific. There’s barely any forest left. The community was in really dire straits. They didn’t have health care at all, and their economic situation was just horrific. It was so bad that they really didn’t have enough food to eat. We had these meetings with them. We asked them what the solutions were at the end of these meetings. What they said was that they needed a variety of rice that you could harvest three times a year, and they needed help with their irrigation systems. Part of that was because they didn’t have enough energy to really dig the ditches and build little irrigation canals because they didn’t have enough food to eat. It was a vicious cycle.

So they said, “We need help to dig our ditches and be paid in rice to not cut trees for our livelihood. We need health care access and we need to rebuild schools.” So, we did all those things and saw dramatic changes in just a couple of years. Now they are getting three crops of rice a year, and the kids are all going to school. When we had someone go to do an evaluation, one woman said, “Just look around you. Look how healthy everyone is.”

That’s why it’s so important that it’s trust-based philanthropy. We are paying for outcomes. We are not asking “Did you spend $7 or $5?” We are paying for forest protection and we are giving a gift of thanks. In return, communities are thriving. Everyone thrives because it’s planetary health.

Mongabay: How will the Rainforest Exchange platform and app add to the work that the organization has been doing?

Kinari Webb: Through Health in Harmony, we have a model that works. It’s working in Indonesia, Brazil and in Madagascar. But we are a small organization and the planet has very limited time for us to figure this out. So we figured we have got to scale and we have got to scale fast. What we want is a mechanism by which we do radical listening with rainforest communities. So we listen to groups of people until we find a general consensus in a given region on the solutions that would be needed in order to protect the forest and for them to thrive. Then the goal is to have that visible on the app. And then, we would like to have resources to funnel directly to those communities.

Mongabay: How do you measure impact?

Kinari Webb: There are three parts to that. We partnered with Woodwell Climate Research Center. They do satellite monitoring. They then use machine-learning tools to basically look at the satellite imagery and say, “OK, this is how much carbon is in these given regions, and this is the trajectory of carbon in that region.”

But there are other factors too. I hate to reduce the value of forests to just their carbon. It’s an important factor, but it’s definitely not the only important factor. The other one is biodiversity. We needed a mechanism for measuring biodiversity that doesn’t require a huge amount of ground presence. So we are partnering with various groups to use these great bioacoustic mechanisms to measure biodiversity and how it is changing over time.

The third way is community-determined well-being and thriving. What that means is that we are developing a mechanism by which communities themselves determine criteria for their well-being.

A tree nursery managed by a local community.
A tree nursery managed by a local community in Borneo. Image by Moving Mountains Trust via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: Could you give examples of some community-determined criteria of their own well-being?

Kinari Webb: Income may or may not be correlated with community well-being. Same with even infant mortality, which is generally considered a quite good measure. But that’s not all. I will give you an example. There’s a region in Central Kalimantan in Indonesia where I did an assessment. There, a palm oil company had come in, taken all the forest, totally manipulated the communities to work for them and taken most of their rice fields as well. The way that they phrased it was “We have now become slaves to the palm oil plantation, we no longer have a choice. There’s no other work for us.” Yes, infant mortality has gone down. And yes, income, you might say, had gone up. But they actually weren’t better off. Even if they were now making money, they considered themselves much worse off. So from my perspective, the factors that we tend to measure community well-being with can also be very colonial.

So we want the community to rank their own well-being. For example, we were working with an Indigenous woman in Chad and one of the things that she really focuses on is Indigenous evaluation. She told us about a community who ranked their own well-being based on whether or not the children there sang to the cows. Because if they sang to the cows, they were healthy and happy, and it showed that the cows were healthy and happy. In order for the cows to be healthy and happy, the ecosystem had to be healthy and happy. It also meant that they valued their pastoral culture and their traditions being passed down through generations.

Mongabay: What does the Rainforest Exchange platform and app display and how does it work?

Kinari Webb: You get to view a little video which tells you about the importance of the forest, the importance of an anti-colonial approach to this, and how critical it can be to do reciprocity. Then you choose communities to partner with. You can get all the details about them. Once you sign up, you will get feedback on the impact such as carbon and how communities rank their well-being.

Devika Gopal Agge: Indigenous people have the knowledge. Technically, donors should be able to give to them, but most times donors cannot find them. With the app, you can deep dive because Rainforest Exchange creates that experience for you where you can go into the forest virtually, you can hear the testimonies of the community, and you can watch their videos. Our hope is, in the future, we can create these virtual meeting hubs for them. Maybe donors could visit the site and learn from the communities they are supporting.

A-frame grass houses.
A-frame grass houses of a community by the rainforests in Madagascar. Image by Lon&Queta via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What is the biggest challenge you faced while trying to make this work?

Kinari Webb: Our biggest challenge is getting enough funding. Selling the idea that we need to approach the whole system of planetary health in a different way is outside the box. A lot of donors go “That’s a great idea. But it doesn’t fit our donation portfolio. We have a health care portfolio, and you have a conservation project and it’s hard for us to figure out how these fit in.”

Also, there are very few grants that support technology. And those that do are not necessarily looking at conservation and human well-being at the same time. To really put all that together in one piece is our biggest challenge.

Devika Gopal Agge: What happens with community-based solutions is that you need to be flexible to make pivots. I’ll share a story to illustrate. There’s a donor who might like to support this program we have in Indonesia. The community asked for goats, so we wrote a proposal for the goats. Halfway through, the community says they have a problem that the goats run away and they need sensors to track the goats. Then someone has to write a proposal for it. Then to manage the sensors, you need a computer. So seemingly, all of this is unrelated to climate, carbon and biodiversity. What most people find trouble with is understanding how it relates to carbon sequestration, protection of the environment and protection of biodiversity. So making that clear was critical because we had this hypothesis that it worked.

A Stanford study actually proved that when you center community solutions, when you provide health care, livelihood and education options, they actually have a direct correlation to forest preservation and biodiversity. So we have to get people to believe in the model and make them understand that co-creating a solution with communities is going to result in a solution which works for them, for you and the environment.

Mongabay: Finally, what does the future of Rainforest Exchange and Health in Harmony look like?

Devika Gopal Agge: It is about proving that when you do trust-based philanthropy, when you give to the people who are the real stewards of the land, you can actually see impact. The goal was to create this proof of concept which is also backed by data to show that when you honestly invest in the expertise and guidance of the communities, you can actually create interlinked solutions which protect the web of life. Our hope is to scale pan-tropically.

Kinari Webb: What we want to do is reverse tropical deforestation by 2030. If we lose the forests, it is game over. It doesn’t matter if we go to zero carbon emissions. So we have to simultaneously reduce emissions and reverse tropical deforestation.

Related reading:

‘Amped-up citizen science’ to save the world: Q&A with Conservation AI Hub’s Grant Hamilton


This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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