Kinari Webb, MD, is the founder of Health In Harmony, an international nonprofit dedicated to reversing global heating, understanding that rainforests are essential for the survival of humanity, and a cofounder of Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI). Dr. Webb graduated from Yale University School of Medicine with honors and currently splits her time between Indonesia, international site assessments, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Guardians of the Trees is her debut.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The interconnectedness of nature and humanity, that rainforest health is linked to planetary and human health
- The importance of reciprocity and gratitude towards the communities living in and protecting our forests
- Using radical listening to respect and understand what communities truly need to solve problems
- The value of “recognizing there is enough for us all to thrive, but only when we all thrive. That it is actually the belief in not enough that creates the scarcity.”
- Book: Guardians of the Trees: A Journey of Hope Through Healing the Planet (2021) – Kinari Webb, M.D. www.guardiansofthetrees.org
Connect with Kinari Webb
Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good – and social artists, people who feel deeply and create on behalf of the human future. And our guest today is Dr. Kinari Webb.
She is the founder of Health in Harmony, an international nonprofit dedicated to reversing global heating, understanding that rainforests are essential for the survival of humanity, and a co-founder of Alam Sehat Lestari. Dr. Kinari graduated from Yale University School of Medicine with honors and currently divides her time between Indonesia and the United States. Health and Harmony’s mission is to recognize the inextricable link between human and environmental health and focus on providing healthcare as an incentive to protect natural resources.
While studying orangutans in Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo in 1993, Kinari Webb saw both devastating threats to the rainforest and the deplorable lack of healthcare and the local communities living in the park. After completing her medical training, she returned and spent a year traveling around the country looking for ways to help reduce the damage to the rainforest and to the villagers who lived within.
Today the clinic she founded provides affordable healthcare for the communities of Gunung Palung and has not just improved the lives of the residents, but also introduced alternative income sources and dramatically reduced illegal logging in the rainforest. Dr. Webb was honored as an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur Fellow in 2014, and with the Rainier Arnold Fellow through the Mulago Foundation in the same year.
And now here’s my conversation with Kinari Webb.
Welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right. As you well know, the hour’s late. The unraveling of the webs of life and the fragile webs of community, where mutuality and reciprocity mean health, and the fear and the self-centeredness; all of this promises to doom us.
And you do amazing work in restoring rainforests through radical listening to what people there say they need, rather than what the experts from the global north impose. You are a woman who also has the courage to deeply listen within to your dreams, to your own health crises, to your entrenched beliefs that are holding a sword of Damocles over your own head.
So our listeners, sometimes we call them the walking worried, who know enough to get our predicament and yet who struggle to see clearly and act courageously in the murky present. And we need what you have found, within and in your work, something that you might call sober hope, or actionable hope, or gritty hope, or hope on the other side of platitudes and nostrums.
And with that set up, you can use it as a springboard or ignore it. I am eager to hear your answer to our one question: in the face of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?
Kinari Webb: Whew. That one question kind of encapsulates my life, you know. I just feel like, I felt like I had spent most of my life very worried.
I’m still very worried. I mean, I think if we are not looking, if we’re not worried, we’re not really looking at the situation because we are in an emergency. It is a crisis. We are, unintentionally, but very consciously destroying our planet, destroying the systems that keep us alive. Destroying beauty, destroying love.
Why are we doing that? I don’t really know. And yet I know that a lot of it is based on some really fundamental errors. Colonialism, racism, elitism, a belief that endless extraction is possible, endless growth is possible. All of those are are fundamental fallacies, they’re belief structures.
But as soon as we dive into them, very quickly we can see that that’s not truth. So when I first went to Borneo to study orangutans as an undergraduate, I first had those first beginning moments of, Whoa, I don’t see the world at all the way it is. I’m in this beautiful forest. You know, Jane Goodall says you can’t spend time in the forest and not know how interconnected everything is.
Boy, you feel it in your bones. You just know. And in your skin and there’s everything crawling all over you and you know, we are all interconnected and I can hear the chainsaws in the distance. What is wrong with these evil people? Why can they not see how amazing this forest is?
Why can they not see how important it is for the health of the whole planet or the health of the orangutans, or for their own health? Then I begin to talk to these men, you know, Well, why are you doing this? What is wrong with you? And to have them say that healthcare was one of the primary drivers.
And as I began to really understand the world over so many years, why did these communities have so few resources? Of course, because they were stolen from them for thousands of years, right? Literally from the actual communities where I was working. So there they are. One man I know cutting down 60 giant rainforest trees to pay for a C-section. A woman recently telling me, if anyone tells you they haven’t logged to pay for healthcare, they’re lying to you because there’s no other way to get an entire year’s income.
And I just really began to know my own luck in life. Luck, sort of luck. I was born in the richest country in the world. I have light skin. I could go to medical school if I wanted to. Ebo Atti, this wonderful woman that I knew, she was the wife of Joe No, who was one of our field assistants in the forest I know, knew very, very well.
Ebo Atti was so smart, but she’d had horrible education. Right? The capacity for her to go to medical school was just zilch. It didn’t matter that she was passionate about the health of her community. I mean, enough money to go to medical school? Impossible, right? Just even basic reading and writing was a real effort given the education she’d received.
And so I began to think, Okay, I could actually do this, but I did it with this fundamental understanding that outsiders are never gonna understand the full situation. When I say to people that people in communities, now I understand all over the tropics, all over the global south, are having to trade their long term wellbeing for their short term wellbeing.
And in fact, that happens in this country, right? It happens all over the world. When people are in that situation, they know that they’re making choices that are not gonna benefit our future. We all do it. I just had a C-section a couple years ago, a year and a half ago. My family would’ve done whatever it took to get that for me, and I would’ve been grateful for it, and I wouldn’t have wanted that to mean destroying the future.
But for these communities, that’s often what ends up happening. So that’s like kind of where we are in some ways. What could be better? Right. So we did this process, I call radical listening. After I finished medical school, we went back, I teamed up with all these amazing Indonesians and we, especially my co-founder Hotlin Ompusunggu, and we just listened.
We listened to all the communities around the park. What would you need as a thank you from the world community for protecting this precious resource? I see this as reciprocity. You know, it’s an indigenous concept. It’s an alternative to a capitalist way of seeing the world.
We all have something to give, and when you give gifts to each other, mutual gifts, those gifts are bigger on each side. They just keep getting bigger. It’s actually a beautiful way to run the world. So I said, What would you need as a thank you from the world so that you can guard this precious rainforest and you can thrive?
They said healthcare access, which I knew because I’d been talking to these communities for a long time. And then they said they needed organic farming training. Like what? It seemed like the strangest thing. But they said, Look, our traditional form of agriculture, which is slash and burn, it was working well when there was lots of forest and not many people, it doesn’t work anymore.
We heard other places know how to do that, how they can grow food in one place sustainably, in a way that’s healthy for them for a long time that doesn’t cost a huge amount of money. How do we do that? So the experts are on the next door island of Java with a many thousand year tradition of sustainable agriculture. Just bring them over.
So this radical listening process, we’ve been doing it all over the world. Communities know exactly what the solutions are. I call it like the fulcrums of change. I will come into these communities and think, Oh, there’s so many problems. How could we possibly address all these problems? Right? But they don’t see it that way.
They’re like, If these two things change, everything else would better. Or these three things. Right? We sit in a circle, we ask this question, and then we just wait for those kind of magic resonance moments. Those moments where everyone leans forward. Where everyone goes, Yes! If we had that, it would change everything if that were possible.
Healthcare that you could pay for with seedlings. Healthcare you could pay for with manure or beautiful handicraft. You could get discounts for protecting forest. It worked! Alternative livelihoods that would make your life better every year. That would make the soil better every year. More fertile, not less, where you didn’t have to log to get the startup money for the chemical fertilizers.
Right? All of those things were intimately interconnected in a way that I, as an outsider could never see. So we did it. 10 years later, 90% drop in logging households. A stabilization of the loss of the primary forest. 52,000 acres of rainforest grew back. They saved $65 million worth of carbon compared to other national parks in Indonesia if you compared the sort of difference in the loss of forests.
The world over those 10 years gave a pretty big gift. It was $5.2 million, so it was a pretty big gift. $2 million of that went to building a medical center that hopefully should last the next hundred years. Right? You know, we provided healthcare to 120,000 people.
There was all kinds of sustainable agriculture training. There was goats for widows to get more manure in the communities. It was a lot of stuff, right? It was a beautiful gift that the world gave, but what these communities gave back was a much, much bigger gift. For me, it’s very important that we not think about these forests in terms of monetary means, even though I said that.
And that’s just valuing one tiny part of the forest, which is the carbon. And it’s not a small amount of carbon, right? Like this forest where I first started has the same amount of carbon as 14 years of carbon emissions from San Francisco. It’s not small, right? It matters.
What these communities do really matters on a global scale. But it’s not just the carbon. It’s the flying rivers, it’s the way that these forests create rain halfway around the planet. I usually live in California. I’m visiting Virginia right now, and in California there’s a horrible drought, right? And part of that drought, you never talk about it, but it is so important to understand.
It’s from the loss of the forest in the Amazon, but also from the loss of the forest in the Congo Basin and also from even Southeast Asia. These flying rivers go all over the planet and we need to, we need to see the world as one beautiful ecosystem that needs all its parts. But it really needs its rainforest.
These are absolutely essential ecosystems. If we lose them, it doesn’t matter if we go to a hundred percent alternative energies, we must have thriving rainforest. We need to reverse the loss of forest. We’re now working in Brazil. The indigenous and traditional communities there. It’s different there.
There, those communities are really protecting from the invaders who are trying to come in and cut the forest. And it’s complicated because those invaders often are doing it also for very basic needs. And some of them aren’t, but it’s complicated. But we’re working in a region right now that’s the size of the UK and there are about 20,000 people who are protecting this forest with everything they got. And sometimes if they need healthcare access, maybe making a deal with a logging company, but they really don’t wanna do that. And if they can get healthcare access and they can get their support, and they can get their thank you from the world, they can really protect the forest.
Those 20,000 people are some of the most important people on the planet. If we lose that forest, it would mean going over the tipping point where eventually the whole Amazon goes to savannah because there isn’t enough rain being created by the forest to feed the rest of the forest. So I just feel like the whole world needs to say thank you to these communities, right?
In our first site, that was a 67% drop in infant mortality in that first 10 years, and there was across the board improvements in health, total declines in TB, malaria, pneumonia, all these different kinds of diarrhea, disease. Some of that was because of healthcare access. Some of that’s because the forest is now protected.
And some of that because they have better food. Some of that is because they’re not exposed to a lot of chemicals anymore. All of these things go together. Creating resilient communities. That whole study that I cited was done by Stanford and they just did another study with us , looking at the resilience during covid of these communities.
Less logging than other areas compared with control areas. Also, they had more economic resources. They sort of weathered this real difficult economic period for the whole world, better. And I just feel like this is something that we can do everywhere in the world. We can create resilient communities, with thriving ecosystems, and this is gonna sound weird, but it’s about hope, right? Like, I’m not sure that what we did mattered. It might be how we did it. Everywhere we were, Madagascar or Brazil. Every time any one of our staff members is in the communities, people are coming up to us and saying, Thank you for listening. We have worked with organizations for many years and none of them listen to us. People just come in and they think they know what the solutions are and you’re just wrong.
Or even if they were right, even if they implemented the same thing that the community said they wanted. It’s different when the community themselves says, These are the solutions. Then they feel like, Look at what we did. We knew exactly the right solutions. They were implemented through reciprocity, not through charity.
We gave something to the world. We received something in gratitude. That’s a very different relationship and give us the next problem, we can take on anything. One community leader, he says to me, We are the pathfinders for where the world needs to go to how to live and balance with our earth, and now we wanna teach the world.
And that’s what I feel like. What could we all achieve if we believed change was possible? If we knew that the solutions were within our own communities and that those solutions could receive support and resources, we could rock it, we could change, we could change the world. We could heal our ecosystems, we could heal, we could provide healthcare to the whole world.
We could have much greater equality. We could thrive. And I didn’t believe that until I saw it with my own eyes. I saw it change and not just in Indonesia. We’re now seeing it in Madagascar in, and people told us, Man, if you could be successful in Madagascar, this will work anywhere in the world. Madagascar is poor, poor in a way I have never been anywhere else in the world. Poor, where one family in an entire community might have a pair of shoes, not even flip flops. No one in an entire region owns even a bicycle. No electricity. Like there are not that many places in the world that are that poor, and they’re losing 90% of their forest.
It’s heartbreaking. And yet we are seeing that reverse and we are seeing communities say, Look at us. We’re not afraid of the hunger season anymore. Look at how healthy we are. Look, our children are in school, right? Like that. And now, now it eally already looks, we are collecting more data at the moment, but it looks like the forest loss is really stopping and the communities are trying to come at it from lots of other different directions.
They’re now saying to us like, Okay, now we gotta deal with the charcoal problem. Right? Like, okay, now we dealt with the like most emergency things now. Okay, now let’s deal with the charcoal box. And I just feel like more is possible than we possibly know when we stop this horrible colonialist attitude that outsiders know what the solutions are, that folks in the global north who went to school, whatever that means, know the solutions rather than those who are closest to the problem.
And when we treat it as though outsiders like own these forests, they don’t. Local communities own them. Local communities have something beautiful that they can give the world and we can give them gratitude in return.
Vicki Robin: Yeah. I am sure everybody listening to this or watching it is super inspired and you know, I’m hearing some keys, so I’m gonna name some of the keys that I heard from you, being a nice western mind and like extracting from the beautiful story of you, like intellectual points that we can replicate and study this in the North. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, number one is this idea of radical listening, of not presuming that you are coming in with answers, but you’re coming in, in a spirit of respect.
And not just sort of deigning to listen, but understanding that the people most affected are the best ones to solve the problems. I’m thinking of another guest we’ve had Carolyn Berger, who’s been like a, a spokesperson for this idea of subsidiarity you know, that, that we’ve turned the pyramid upside down. So we’ve given the tiny number of people at the top of the pyramid of financial and educational resources, the power to bestow downward, our great knowledge. Yeah. So radical listening, and then this idea of mutual gifting. You know, I’m thinking of that project.
Is it called Give money, it’s just the project that said, wait a second. We do not need all the intermediaries. You know, all the people who are already educated, who are kind of like making big salaries in order to figure out what people need, they just need the money. And trust them.
They’re not stupid. They’ll do what’s needed. Very few squander the money, so, that one, And then the empowerment, you know, is like through this process, this feeling I have something to give makes such a huge difference. Now here’s my question. I’m thinking about, people in the red states who are so resistant to the coastal elites.
You know the coastal elites, who swoop in and have these big ideas and people say like, why are people voting against their interest? Well, maybe their interest is in dignity, maybe their interest yes, is in community. You know, one of the things I’ve observed over the last two years is that the people are, who are focused on freedom and sovereignty, have better parties.
They have better barbecues. Maybe barbecue mushrooms cause I’m talking to a vegan. But you know, it’s like the social glue, the relationship with their creator. The fact that they have survived in that place for a long time and don’t tell me how to do it.
Now, some of the practices are recognized by the elites, as you know. Because part of what the elites develop is long term thinking, you know, systems thinking. but until there’s some humility and listening, there’s also this assumption that if people are treating their environment that way, for example, mining coal, you know, it’s obvious that there’s a limited amount of coal, that that industry is going to disappear when it’s been mined. But it’s like cutting the trees to afford healthcare. We have desperate needs in this country. Yes. This country, my country, the United States, because not everybody listening is in this country. what would that look like? How would you go about that?
Kinari Webb: I have actually desperately been wanting to go do radical listening with coal miners in the west. Yes, because I think it’s a very, very similar problem. Right, Like if you could have a gift, if you could take a magic wand and have something different, what would you want?
And I would be so surprised if people said, We really just wanna be coal miners, so the rest of our lives, we want our lungs to be destroyed. We want, you know, our children to then go work in the coal mines. Like I am certain it’s not what they want, but what they do want is wellbeing.
Right. Mm. And they wanna be able to feed their families and they want to have work that’s meaningful . Right. And so, what would be the solution and not as outsiders to come in and say, It’s this. Right. What do you see as the solutions? And I bet they have them.
Vicki Robin: Yeah. And it, yeah, it feels as a kind of just comment there, it just feels like, one of the things that you do is you sort of listen through the top layer.
Like yes, we want the government off our backs. Yes. You know, we don’t wanna be told what to do. we don’t want your handouts. We wanna continue what we’re doing. I mean, I think that would be the top layer, because as you know from your personal health crises, the top layer is get me outta here, you know, get me out of this pain.
You know, get me out of this like death sentence. So the first layer is, Get me outta here. It’s almost like the first aid. Yeah. So it can’t like, like drive through the need for dignity. To get them to cough up any of us to cough up answers. It’s, it’s a way deeper process. So is that the radical listening just stays with it until that magic moment when bing, we hear it.
Kinari Webb: Yeah. So I’ll give you an example. So I did listening with a group of loggers, in one of the communities where we work, where the loggers were. This was, I would say, one of the most resistant. There was the highest level of logging and they were, and it was, they were shifting slower. So we went to have a specific meeting with these, these folks and in the beginning of the meeting, there was a lot of distrust and a lot of anger, and one of the guys just starts, looks at me, normally we have what I call an insider, a local who is, who speaks a local language paired with an outsider, and sometimes that outsider can be useful as a lightning rod for some issues. And also as someone who, like you need, the whole group needs to explain things to them and that can sometimes help them understand it.
So he says to me, How dare you come in here and tell us that we can’t log anymore. This is our forest. And you have no right to say that. And I, we weren’t saying that first of all, right? But, but we were asking. Would, you know, would there be solutions so that you could live and thrive and so that the forest could also thrive?
And he, and so I, you know, I was thinking, Okay, how am I gonna respond? But before I could even respond, another guy speaks up and he says, Look, You know these people from is the Indonesian name of our group. You know, ASRI, they’re so helpful. They really care about us. That’s not what’s going on here. Look, have we have seen in our own lifetime that the edge of the forest has been receding?
How much longer do you think it is before it’s all gone? It’s gonna probably at the most be 10 years. And then what? Then we’re gonna all have to change our work anyway, but all the forest will be gone and there won’t be any water. And he says they’re just trying to find solutions so that we change now while they’re still forest, we’re gonna have to change.
Mm. It’s just a question of when. Mm. And a guy looks at him and he is like, Yeah, I know you’re right. And then they all just like got down to like really trying to find solutions.So it was, it’s really interesting. I’ve seen that in multiple places around the world too. In Madagascar, a man who said, our ancestors said they would be forest until hens have teeth.
And now we know that’s not true. There is, we are gonna lose all our forest. We’re gonna have to do something. And I would say that is on a global level. People are beginning to see that it is not endless and I think it’s much more powerful when local communities themselves facilitate that discussion.
Vicki Robin: Right. It’s like a readiness and perhaps the first layer of listening is dealing with the suspicion and perhaps the community isn’t ready, because it’s still working for them.
So there’s this somehow sweet spot, which I, I think we are in, you know, or bitter spot if you will. You know, there’s a bitter spot. It reminds me, years ago when the spotted owl crisis came and I was learning about the Listening Project. That was a project in the South where they just went to listen to people.
So a friend of mine and I got our tent. He went out to folks to do a listening project, you know, not because anybody authorized us or told us or whatever. You know, I mean, you heard some of the, I mean, number one there was a, there was a logger museum. They wanted to show how beautiful their work was.
There was, we are the guardians of the forest. We know what’s going on there. There was the promise to young people that if you just go into the forest, you know you’ll have money for life and that’s not working and it’s defending their youth, and so it was like a challenge to my own mind. Mm-hmm.
Like, why are they doing it wrong to them? It’s not wrong, and they’re not willfully, they’re not willfully doing something wrong. It’s tradition. Yeah and then we met a woman who Had discovered that the shoots of new growth, these like branches came up all curly and red, and she was going into the clear cuts and harvesting these and selling them to florist shops and has some thriving business.
So, you know, the system itself was self-correcting. You know, I’m not sure we, you know, we didn’t do it long enough. We didn’t have the impact that your group has. But it was a big lesson in being a know it all. Yeah. I really think this is so key. I mean, I live in a community that is, it’s just a target of developers, You know, we’re weakened by the pandemic. our housing is going for like twice or three times what it did. Our workers are leaving the island. They can’t find a place to rent. It’s all Airbnbs now. It’s like a perfect stew.
And then an outside developer bought out one of our main shopping plazas to turn it into self storage. And now the community is rising up. The story is just unfolding that right now. And we have no idea how it will turn out.
I really hear what you’re saying. It’s not a strategy you have to really deeply get. It’s a question that the intelligence that’s needed to solve the problem is distributed in the whole community. And it’s not you that’s coming in who’s gonna have the smart idea? And you know, that’s been the story of my life being the person who comes in with the smart idea. So, you know, but I am also a deep listener and I also love.
I love my community and I really honor the intelligences that are in all elements of my community. and we talk about resilient communities. That’s the theme of Post Carbon Institute. But we’re so worried that the more worried you get, the more afraid you get, the more you try to exercise control.
And that’s another thing in your book. When you’ve had health crises, you’ve gotten to the moment of surrender. Not in order to survive, but just, you know, that’s what this assault on your body was teaching you, and that’s one of the hardest things to do when you’re, when you’re threatened. I just like, I would like to invite you to have some reflections because I think we should be winding this up and not do like a Joe Rogan three hour interview, you know? Just like some reflections on, on this with this audience in mind. Mostly, largely people from the global north, very concerned, but not knowing how to address this, where they can make even a tiny difference.
Kinari Webb: So we actually offer a free monthly webinar on radical listening that one of my amazing colleagues teaches. And like the first level of that is teaching about interbeing. This idea that we are all interconnected, we are all one. We feel like that’s like the fundamental layer that has to be in place for truly listening.
And so we invite you, come join that. See how radical listening may be part of your own work, your own life, your own communities. And then of course, like being part of this work, in sending gratitude. We’re trying to figure out ways to actually scale this throughout the whole tropics so that resources could go directly to communities.
That they could then, if they needed healthcare, say, you know, pay a nonprofit to come and do that, and provide that if they wanted, or, you know, that, that it would be, they, they are the ones in control. They determine the solutions. They make those solutions possible with the resources from those who have enough.
Recognizing there is enough for us all to thrive, but only when we all thrive. Right? That it is actually the belief in not enough that creates the scarcity. So yeah, Rainforest Exchange is actually the beta of the app that we are developing to be able to connect people all over the world directly to rainforest communities and send your gratitude to them. So check it out.
Vicki Robin: Wow, I’m hearing that. And I’m wondering if aid workers from the global south might come to help us restore our sense of interbeing and to restore our sense of gratitude. And in a way we have those, the, those folks in our midst and we call them marginalized. You know, people who have survived and found strategies for survival.
Yes. In the midst of a very toxic environment. Yes. and so that’s another thing is rather than that mentality of helping or saving or including, you know, that whole mentality. It’s to say the wisdom we need to solve the problems we have is distributed in our communities.
Kinari Webb: Yeah. And particularly indigenous communities. Right. Following that wisdom communities who have lived in ecosystems for tens of thousands of years in balance. That is the knowledge that we need. I mean, we need to worship at the feet of people who know this, right? Like how do we do this? Right. Right. And it’s very specific in different ecosystems.
Vicki Robin: Oh my. Thank you so much for this inspiring conversation.
Kinari Webb: Thank you for all the work you have done in the world. I have been following your work for 40 year, 30 years. A very long time. I loved it.
Vicki Robin: Yeah. Thank you so much. Well, I’m just gonna pop in one more thing.
The other thing, the other key that you discovered was that if you put women in charge, you’re gonna tend to get better results. You know, and talk about a marginalized population in the western world, even though right now it seems women are empowered. You’re a woman, I’m a woman, you know, we are empowered, but I just think that.
So here we are, a mutual admiration, two women who’ve given our all through thick and thin and crisis and such to heal the world. So thank you.
Kinari Webb: So, and to heal ourselves, because that’s where it all starts.