Cam and Kinari Webb

Cam and Kinari Webb are an impressive couple.

The two live in Sukadana, a ‘village’ with 12,000 inhabitants in Borneo, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, right next to Gunung Palung National Park. Cam is an ecologist with an impressive track record in tropical rainforest ecology, molecular phylogenetics, and bioinformatics, including the development of several software applications. Kinari is a physician who runs a combined health and conservation project.

Both Cam and Kinari are engaged in the conservation of the tropical rainforest in West Kalimantan and Gunung Palung. The greatest threat to the forest is illegal logging, which is a big problem worldwide. Many of the local families are involved in this to supplement their very low income and in order to scrape a living. The extent to which illegal logging affects the area is detailed in a 2002 report by the World Resources Institute, which predicted that, at 2002 rates, the lowland forests in West Kalimantan would disappear by 2010. Today’s level of damage is disconcerting.

Fifteen years ago, while on a research project on orangutans in the National Park – one of the last few areas worldwide where orangutans still live in the wild – Kinari saw the threat to the environment as well as the desperate need for medical care of the people in the area. Both have primarily economic reasons: ‘The average income of a family is 13 USD a month according to the World Health Organization‘, Kinari says. In a survey, Kinari’s team asked each family how much money they could scrape together if they sold everything they could sell and asked everyone they know to borrow money. The team discovered that the average amount any of the families could come up with was USD 270 – while government-provided emergency medical care comes in at around USD 460, making it unaffordable for most or leading to what the WHO and World Bank call ‘catastrophic spending’.

Kinari combined both problems and came up with a bottom-up concept that ties together environmental and community health, which connects conservation and medical care: she founded a health center that provides medical treatment for the local families and where, in return, patients can either pay in cash at very low prices or by working on community conservation efforts and education. While care is never denied to anyone, an incentive program fosters the environmental engagement of the patients. Today, Kinari takes care of the medical side of the operation, while Cam advises on the conservation projects.

Recently, Kinari and her team started visiting surrounding villages and settlements with a mobile clinic – under the premise that nobody in the village or settlement is actively logging. In the first go-around, this seems to have worked: one of the villages previously listed as ‘red’ by the national park service, meaning that they were actively illegally logging, stopped completely!

It’s not easy. When I met them last week, Kinari was asked over dinner one evening what medical facilities are available at the center. These currently include basic equipment: an EKG, an ultrasound and oxygen, but not much else. They are hoping to have an x-ray machine soon. But the center isn’t set up to perform operations. Naturally, the next question was what happens when someone needs an operation? Kinari recounted that, just recently, the son of a government official – with an acute appendicitis – had to first be driven 2.5 hours to the nearest town, and then taken by boat for 6 hours for an appendectomy. He just barely made it. She went on saying that the most urgent need for operational facilities was probably so that the center’s doctors could carry out C-sections – not being able to do that is still the primary cause of death for women.

The center does depend on donations. One of the options is to donate medical equipment.
As hard as their life is, you can tell that Cam and Kinari are happy – or is ‘content’ more appropriate? I am almost envious of the opportunity the two have – or rather, have made for themselves – to work together towards a common goal, but each in his/her own way. It’s obvious that the contributions from both, together and separately, are essential for the project to be a success. They have thrown everything they have at this and achieve two very valuable things at once: to reduce illegal logging and to provide desperately needed health care to the people in West Kalimantan. They live a very full life.

It’s one of the best ideas I have heard of and surely one of the most impressive examples of taking action in response to a need. I hope they can keep up the good work for a long time.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs, where you can also read the comments made at the time.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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3 Responses to Cam and Kinari Webb

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    Welcome (again), Steffi! This is a fascinating first post about what reads to be an excellent project.
    Now I will see if the RSS feed is working yet, and try to subscribe to your blog.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks Maxine! The idea to write about people rather than ‘things’ was really prompted by meeting Kinari and Cam – what they do is really inspiring. Maybe I can do something helpful like that when I (finally) grow up..

  3. Maxine Clarke says:

    Oh, don’t ever grow up, Steffi!

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