Turning Tree Seedlings into Medicine, Borneo

Yayasan Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI)’s mission is to improve both environmental and human health around Gunung Palung National Park, a 100,000 + hectare protected area of Borneo’s forests,  home to 5-10% of the world’s orangutans. Tying together healthcare and conservation initiatives to break the dangerous cycle of poverty, poor health and environmental destruction, ASRI engages with local communities to provide high quality, low-cost healthcare in exchange for a commitment to protect natural resources.

Gunung National Park’s significant populations of threatened species such as orangutans, Malayan sunbears and mouse-deer, are threatened by illegal logging, land clearance and uncontrolled fires that often launch a vicious cycle of annual burning.  It is critical to break this cycle and research shows that orangutan densities can recover if the forest is allowed to recover over a few years. Since 2007, ASRI has operated a health clinic that offers discounted health care to communities in exchange for commitments to reduce or eliminate illegal logging, complemented by targeted conservation initiatives.  This involves offering clinic patients the option to pay for up to 70% of medical bills with specific varieties of native tree seedlings which are then used to restore degraded areas of the park. This project will:
– establish an arboretum and educational trail around the healthcare centre, providing education for local school children (12 educational trips) and health benefits for recovering patients (approx. 2000).
– rehabilitate an additional 15 hectare area of forest through a mixture of natural regeneration and planting where there are low levels of regrowth.  Approximately 22,500 trees to be liberated through natural regeneration and an additional 25,000 seedlings will be planted to achieve optimal tree cover density
– train volunteers and local communities in fire fighting and fire patrols to ensure no fires reach the newly reforested area
– help create ‘savings accounts’ with seedlings and establish a seed nursery in the hospital grounds

The Update

Update March 2018:
The project is making great progress including:
– Planting 1,484 native forest seedlings around the healthcare campus and adjacent mini forest arboretum.
– Establishing a 1km gravelled educational trail around the mini forest arboretum with signboards and seedling placards.
– Undertaking educational conservation programmes: children learn about the hospital, services provided, the connection between health and the environment, and ASRI’s non-cash payment system. They also watch a film about climate change, tour and work in the demonstration sustainable farm (including harvesting vegetables), and do a guided walk through the trail in the mini forest arboretum to learn about tropical forest ecosystems and how to conserve forests.
– Outreach educational presentations are conducted once a week in the hospital waiting room and at monthly community meetings. Forest Guardians are also raising awareness about the seedling payment option to their communities. In total, almost 3000 people have been reached.
– The seeding nursery has been established at the hospital with a capacity for 4000 seedlings. More than 37 species of trees have been received from patients. Seedling overflow is moved to the reforestation site nursery.
– In 2017, 11,850 seedlings were received from patients. After hearing about the programme many patients have started to bank seedlings with ASRI as savings accounts.
– Rehabilitation has started on the 15ha area of forest with 3ha of assisted natural regeneration and enrichment plantings progressing in areas where there are low levels of growth.
– Fire breaks have been maintained and patrols carried out with surrounding residents being educated in fire prevention and control; resulting in zero fires in any of the reforestation sites.

Final update:
The project is now complete and has successfully completed the following:
– Planting 45,549 to rehabilitate a 15 hectare area of forest. The initial plans for natural regeneration were not as successful as the project had hoped and consequently a more hands on approach of planting a higher number of trees was required. This clearly involved more effort but the hard work has paid off, and the current estimated survival rate is over 82%;
– Successfully established a seedling nursery for the variety of native tree seedlings received from patients as contribution to their medical bills. This has proved very successful and initial plans to house 3000 seedlings had to be significantly scaled upward as 17,427 seedlings were received in 2018! The nursery is now capable of holding 25,000 seedlings;
– Planting a further 918 native seedling from over 33 species within the ASRI hospital grounds and mini arboretum;
– Established a 1km educational trail throughout the hospital grounds and arboretum, including educational signage and wooden benches for patients to rest;
– Educated 2,639 people through their conservation programme at hospital and in the community;
– Undertaken 13 field trips involving 398 students learning about forest ecosystems and how to conserve them; and
– Reached over 4,000 people through outreach programmes informing communities about the project and the seedling payment option.
Due to long dry periods in 2018, some incidences of fire outbreaks occurred near the reforestation sites. The fires originated from oil palm companies and areas where slash and burn methods are still practiced. The project’s implementation of fire patrols successfully controlled the fires before they spread to the reforestation site. In addition the fire breaks established in this project helped to stop the fire from spreading further.
The project plans to continue its vital work in forest enrichment with the seedlings received by patients, protection of the forest through fire management, and further augmenting the mini arboretum to represent the plethora of tree species found in the national park. We wish it a very successful future!

Image: School children planting trees