How are icebergs and rainforests connected?
That is exactly the question that a group of Indonesian students asked as they stood in front of a giant image of an iceberg. They turned from the poster to face me and behind me they could see one of the rainforest peaks of Gunung Palung National Park — the jewel in the crown of all the Indonesian national parks. These students were extremely curious. This field trip to the first planetary health hospital in the world was stretching their brain to understand how human health, the health of the natural ecosystem around them, and those crazy icebergs were connected.
I asked the kids if they had ever seen a picture of an iceberg. They said they had heard about them and seen drawings but had never seen an actual photograph. And this picture was stunning. I explained to the students that this image was taken by one of our donors, Alexiandrea Borden, as she sailed in the frigid waters of the far northern part of our planet. She and her husband, John Gillespie, had donated to help Health In Harmony fund the construction of the ASRI Community Hospital and Training Center in Borneo partly to help save those icebergs.
Rainforests Help Cool the Planet
Why would they do that? I asked the students. “What is the connection between the polar ice caps and the beautiful rainforests you see all around you?” One kid piped up: “I know the rainforests are the lungs of the earth and they also help keep our planet cool. Is that why?” “YES! It absolutely is!”
We went on to talk about how the forests of the earth absorb one quarter of the pollution that is released into the atmosphere every year, keeping climate change from getting worse. Unlike human lungs that absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the rainforest sucks in CO2 and releases oxygen. They are the perfect opposite of what we need. And what the trees do with that carbon is build trunks and leaves. If those forests get cut down or they burn, the carbon is released into the atmosphere. In fact, the forests of the world hold as much carbon as all the exploitable reserves of fossil fuels, so keeping them intact is as essential as halting fossil fuel use. I told the kids that Gunung Palung National Park has as much total carbon in the trees as all the total pollution that San Francisco emits over 14 years.
Healthy People, Forests, and Icebergs
The kids understood the importance of the forest, but they still didn’t get why this iceberg picture was in a hospital. So we explained that at the planetary health hospital that I helped found, people can pay for health care with seedlings for reforestation instead of having to log to pay for health care as often used to be the case in this region of Borneo. In addition, communities that reduce or stop their logging get extra discounts on the cost of care. The discount is paid for by global citizens who care about the future of our planet and who want to protect the orangutans who live in the forest.
And it is working! This work by Health In Harmony and its sister organization in Indonesia called Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), has led to a 88 percent drop in logging households and a 90 percent drop in deaths of children under age 5. The students were so inspired by this that they brainstormed how to impact climate change themselves by going out into the community and trying to reduce plastic usage and waste.
One young woman said that her sister had gotten care at the hospital from a lung infection and that she was now all better. She asked me to thank the citizens of the world who helped her get care and she hoped people would continue to support our work.
Because that’s what we want to see: healthy people, healthy orangutans, and healthy forests all helping protect icebergs.
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Feature image courtesy of artist Alexiandrea Borden