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Healing the world through ‘radical listening’: Q&A with Dr. Kinari Webb

  • Kinari Webb is a medical doctor and founder of Health in Harmony, a nonprofit aimed at curbing global warming by protecting rainforests and empowering the human communities that live within them.
  • Over the past 10 years, Health in Harmony has helped lift communities in Indonesian Borneo from poverty by providing sustainable, local livelihoods that have dramatically reduced their reliance on logging.
  • Webb says she and her colleagues were able to accomplish this by listening to what communities really needed and to their ideas about possible solutions; she says Health in Harmony’s model could be applied to other communities around the world, even those in developed countries.
  • On a larger scale, Webb says governments need to stop prioritizing economic growth; she says the COVID-19 crisis highlights the danger of reliance on global supply chains, and that working together and moving toward a “regenerative economy” would help humanity weather future pandemics — as well as prevent them from happening in the first place.

Dr. Kinari Webb believes this because she has witnessed it — up close: Amid this global pandemic, the health of the planet is intricately connected to public health around the world.

In an op-ed she co-authored in The Hill in connection with Earth Day, she wrote: “The coronavirus is perhaps the biggest wakeup call we have ever had to the fact that failing to take nature into account puts our own health in danger.”

More than a decade ago, Webb, a medical doctor and founder of the nonprofit Health in Harmony, plunged into a remote jungle community of 60,000 mostly impoverished people in Indonesian Borneo near Gunung Palung National Park. She had gone there first to study orangutans. Logging was rampant. Local agriculture was anemic. The health of the population was often dire.

Through some 400 initial hours of community discussions — “radical listening,” Webb calls it — she and her team learned that many were logging, and thus destroying precious ecosystems, in order to pay for health care. They worked to change that dynamic. By training locals in sustainable agriculture and offering health care at deep discounts if logging ceased, they saw significant results. Improved infant mortality and public health. Drastically reduced deforestation. Recovering ecosystems along with the biodiversity living within the rainforests.

Can radical listening and community-based solutions focusing heavily on environmental protection and public health point the way toward preventing the next pandemic? In an exclusive interview with Mongabay, Webb tackles that question and others on the way toward suppressing laughter while imagining what she’d say if President Trump invited her to speak at a COVID-19 press conference at the White House.

Dr. Kinari Webb. Image by Robert Lisak.


Mongabay: As this virus started in China and slowly spread to other parts of the world, at what point did you start thinking about the connection between what we are seeing in this public health crisis and our concurrent environmental crisis involving climate change?

Kinari Webb: Instantaneously. I have spent the last 15 years trying to help the world understand these intimate interconnections. How if we destroy ecosystems and invade into them, and if we continue to trade wild animals around the world, then pandemics from viruses coming out of tropical ecosystems will happen over and over again.

And, because of the work that we do, I am constantly thinking about how human health, if it’s threatened, can lead to the further destruction of ecosystems. That destruction is harmful locally as well as globally. If there is any shift in the global perspective that can come out of this pandemic, I hope it is to reach a much greater understanding of how we are intimately interconnected with the natural world. It is impossible to separate us.

Environmentalists and health professionals like yourself have been preaching this for a long time. But deforestation is accelerating. Species extinctions are rising. Poaching and trading in wild animals are still flourishing. Why isn’t this message getting through?

I think people don’t realize the level of change that humanity is capable of. I think when people looked at climate change, they said, “How are we supposed to deal with this? Can we stop international flights? Can we stop burning coal? Can we stop deforesting for more agriculture and mining?” For many, the answer is no. Many people who look at our world and conclude we are so dependent on growth for all of our economic systems that we don’t have a choice but to keep going like this.

Indonesia, with its vast rainforests, just announced under its Paris Agreement pledge that it would prioritize growth over more ambitious emissions reductions.

I honestly think one of the things the pandemic is teaching us is that that kind of reaction is a false choice. We are seeing what we are capable of when we realize something is serious. So what would happen if we rebuilt our world economy around sustainability and ecological balance? In the “donut model” of economic theory, there needs to be a floor; everyone in the world needs their basic needs met. But there also needs to be a ceiling. There is a capacity at which the Earth can handle, but not beyond that. Carbon emissions are making climate change worse. Destruction of our ecosystems is messing with the local and global balance of the planet. But there is a large space between the floor and the ceiling. And humanity can thrive within that space. And so can the natural world. If they both don’t thrive, we’re not going to survive. Climate change could be the end of the road. The COVID-19 crisis is a speedbump, admittedly a big speedbump. But if we don’t figure out an economic system not built around growth, we won’t survive.

You are now channeling Pope Francis, among others. This is essentially what he wrote in his 2015 papal encyclical, Laudato si’: we have this consumer-based global economy, this throwaway society and this sense that the resources of the planet are inexhaustible, which they are not.

For the majority of people in the developing world, this connection is extremely clear. In communities where I work in Borneo, they will point up to the hill. If there is forest there, there is water running down from the hills, which is feeding my rice field, which is feeding my family. There is a very clear connection for them. But many of the people in the developed world, particularly in the United States, they are very disconnected from that. They don’t feel the impact — in our bodies. And now, here we are experiencing it.

A felled rainforest tree in Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

One of the things that’s so powerful is seeing what collective action all together means. I used to think, “What I do is so small compared to the scale of the problems.” But now, I believe, if we all act together — on a global scale — look what can happen. This is a profound learning moment for the planet. We can actually change our behavior if we decided to.

You are referring to this global shutdown of the economy and the emission reductions we’re seeing as a result. But are we really learning this lesson? And if we are, will we follow these lessons as we move to reopen the world economy?

It depends on what happens from here, right? I am, and many people I know, are working so hard to help people see a new vision. That we don’t want to go back to the way things were. That is the path to more pain and destruction.

How do you define the way things were?

I suppose like Pope Francis. A complete consumer-based economy. A throwaway society. An attitude about economics that says that we don’t have to take the planet into consideration. And a belief in growth as the only economic model. Even the Green New Deal places a heavy emphasis on growth in a green economy. Actually, our politicians have to be brave enough to say what we know is true: we can’t keep growing as we have. We must have a regenerative economy where things are not wasted, where we know the entire life cycle of everything produced, and where we have more localized economic systems. This pandemic has also really shown us that. We can’t be so dependent on supply chains that are global. Right now, we’re seeing how dangerous that is.

Help me with an example of what you’re thinking about.

I’ve been working for many years in these small communities around Gunung Pulung National Park [in Indonesian Borneo]. These are traditional communities, but when we first came, they were not growing all of the food that they needed to eat. They were growing almost enough rice, mostly through slash-and-burn, but they were not growing enough vegetables. They were importing those. It was quite crazy. But they didn’t know how to grow vegetables because their ancestral history was getting food from the forests. Yet they had destroyed the forests while adding many more people. They were telling us, slash-and-burn is not working for us. We want to learn how to farm in one place without expensive chemical fertilizers because we don’t have the money for that.

In fact, they were logging to afford the expensive fertilizers in order to plant a crop. They knew this was crazy. They asked us: please train us in sustainable agriculture techniques, and, we also need access to affordable health care so we can stop logging. We listened. We trusted them. We helped them in the ways they asked. Now, they are growing all their own vegetables. In the first 10 years of the program, we saw a 90% drop in logging households. We stabilized the loss of primary forests. We had 52,000 acres [21,000 hectares] of logged forests grow back. The locals now say, the forested hills now bring more water. They are making money. It became a regenerative economy that honored the natural world and honored human well-being. So I know that double thriving is possible.

Webb originally went to Borneo to study orangutans. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

That’s what Health in Harmony has achieved in the jungles of Borneo. But most of us work in offices, factories and warehouses. Can a model resembling that be achieved in, say, urban cities in the U.S.?

I’ll give you an example that is metaphorically similar to other contexts. We got down to 10% of previous loggers [in Borneo]. These were a different category of people. They didn’t own land. They owned their chainsaws. And they didn’t have skills to do something else. Logging is all they knew. We wanted to help them shift. But we knew it wouldn’t be easy. So we started a chainsaw buyback program and established an angel investing network. We helped them start small, sustainable businesses. If they failed, we lost money; it was our risk. The businesses they started were service-oriented and regenerative. They have been wildly successful. And we helped them with training in managing money. We have only had two businesses fail out of 190 we invested in. Imagine inner-city Chicago. Imagine investing there in regenerative businesses. Help them with training and create a different kind of life.

You believe that.

Yes. But I am not the one to say how that should work. Our whole principle is built around what I call radical listening. We listen to the local community about what the solutions are. We don’t dictate what they should do. Our experience is local communities know exactly what the solutions are. They are just missing resources or opportunities or knowledge. If they have it, they can start a positive spiral of doing better. And do that by honoring the natural world.

We already have a lot of entrepreneurial support programs across the country. You envision the need for more.

I do. And I think we need to localize a lot of what we create in the world. Depending on so much from China for so many of our parts and products is not a great idea.

All of this takes leadership, especially at the federal level. But the U.S. has ceded that leadership role when it comes to environmental protection, climate mitigation and the need to transition to a carbon-free economy.

I believe if we rely on our federal governments and we believe that they are the ones who will get us out of this crisis, we won’t make it. I believe we will have to mobilize as humans on this planet to work together, regardless of what our governments do. There is a fundamental problem with a government. Its mandate is to protect its own country. Humans don’t have that mandate. Humans understand that we’re all in this together, and that we’re going to have to work together if we’re going to make it. And that’s what we at Health in Harmony are trying to create — basically a technological system for connecting people around the planet so that resources can flow to rainforest communities regardless of what governments are doing. We may not be able to make it without governments. But a belief that that is the only way to survive is a recipe for failure.

You would still need some kind of global, organizing body, wouldn’t you?

Or a nonprofit system that is more democratized. That’s probably the route we need to go. We also have to prioritize. If you had a system where radical listening was done all over the world, we would need to triage, prioritizing rainforests communities. If we lose our rainforests, its game over for the planet. They absorb 30% of the pollution we emit every year. They harbor half of the world’s species. They are critical for weather production. So we start our radical listening there, asking them what they need from the world community as “thanks yous” in return for protecting these rainforests. Then you get those “thank yous” to them, whether from companies, individuals, governments. I don’t care where they come from. But it would have to be under the careful control of local communities. They get to decide what they need, and then they give a gift back to the world in the form of ecosystem services from the rainforests on which we all depend.

Webb at a recent Radical Listening meeting in Madagascar. Image by Stephanie Stevens.

Coming back to COVID-19 — we have birds and mammals, scientists tell us, harboring 1.5 million viruses, half of which would be infectious to humans. As we encroach on their habitats, we come closer and closer to triggering the next virus transfer and epidemic or pandemic.

The risk is enormous. But please remember, if an ecosystem is healthy and in balance, it is likely that those viruses are going to be controlled within their ecosystems, so it’s not an issue. With malaria, we know that when you log the rainforest, malaria goes way up. Mosquitoes thrive. Less frogs to eat the mosquitos. The balance is out of whack. If we have balanced ecosystems, the risk is much lower. And then, it’s an enormous problem when you are taking animals from one ecosystem — like pangolins, collected from all over Southeast Asia, throughout Indonesia and shipped to places like China. These animals are incredibly stressed. Any viruses they have are likely to be blooming as their immune systems are going crazy. And then, they get put in markets with all kinds of other animals without natural immunity. Whether or not that’s how COVID-19 came into the world, that is a ticking time bomb if we allow that to keep happening.

How do you deal with a country like China that wants these exotic animals for medicinal use? You’re a doctor; what do you make of this?

One of the problems in China is that the government really promotes Chinese medicine. Some really good stuff has come from Chinese medicine. But there’s a nationalistic pride in this. China recently banned these outdoor markets, which is good, but it gave an exemption for medicine, which isn’t really helpful. China is very good at science. They should be doing high-quality trials on whether the use of pangolin scales, for example, is actually therapeutic. And if they are, let’s create that molecule in the lab and leave the pangolins go free.

Pangolins, sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters, are considered the most heavily trafficked animals in the world. Of the eight pangolin species, six are either endangered or critically endangered. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

We can go dark here. If you look at the metrics, environmental protection is going in the wrong direction. Leadership is going in the wrong direction. You know all that. And yet — where do you derive your hope?

That’s easy. From communities in Borneo. You have to swim in the right direction, even when the storm is coming directly at you. It may feel hopeless. But you have to do your part. I really thought the work we were starting in Borneo was hopeless. But today? Those communities tell me: “We are the pathfinders for the way the world needs to go. And we’re ready to teach the world.” They give me hope.

OK, bear with me here. A miracle happens. You get invited to a COVID-19 White House press briefing with the president. In some crazy fantasy, he decides to give Dr. Webb time to address the nation. What do you say?

[Laughing as the question unspools, then stops.] What I would say is this pandemic is teaching us that we are not separate from the natural world. And that we cannot be healthy and thrive without healthy, natural ecosystems. That is even more true of our climate and our planet. And if we do not prioritize that kind of health and well-being, what we are seeing now will be nothing — nothing — compared to the destruction we will experience.

But — if we all work together, if we recognize the priorities of our joint health and well-being, we can all thrive. If we protect our natural ecosystems, it is much less likely that another virus like this will come for us and damage the whole planet. If we work together to regenerate our economy in a way that gives us health and well-being for the long-term future, we can all thrive. That’s what I would say.


Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.

Read more about Kinari Webb and her work here, and listen to her on our podcast.

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