West Kalimantan – Rays of Hope

Bali Soul Journals is the first in the Soul Journals Series.  Last week, I travelled into wild and untouched West Kalimantan seeking the next story, and I was overwhelmed with sensory beauty.  While this website remains Bali Soul Journals, I will be posting my travels around the globe while working on a companion website, www.souljournals.com.au.  Here is my newest journey.


Light filters through the canopy, washing the forest floor with a golden glow.  Red, yellow and parched brown leaves create an eiderdown of exquisite beauty.  As I turn my face to absorb the rays, a leaf of vibrant green floats from the roof of my shelter, drifting on a current I can only feel in my soul.

I am climbing Guning Bulan, Moon Mountain, one of the glorious jungle peaks in Indonesia’s oldest National Park, Galung Palung and possibly one of the most important parks in the world today.

Saved in a mad rush to nurture our planet, logging has almost ceased.  Looking over the ranges of the park, it appears to be endless rolling hills and dense jungle.  But from the air, it is an oasis in a maze of ugly tree stumps on a fractured earth.

A stream sings its forest song as it joyfully flows to feed planes of rice paddies below.  Leaves of rust drift in the clear water.  I am reminded of my childhood in the Great Diving Range in Australia, when I innocently believed that every child got to toss their shoes aside and wade through cool water that gently massaged skinny ankles tanned by the summer’s rays.  And that child believed they always would.

Now as darkness gathers on the earth, I am torn between a sense of distress and one of reverence for its perfection.  I kneel to scoop the precious drops into my palms, splashing my face so that they mingle with tears of joy and loss.

West Kalimantan pays homage to all the world was, is and could be.  Raped of much of its forest as the march of palm oil producers stamps across Borneo, the community surrounding the National Forest in Sukadama is awakening to a frightening vision of polluted rivers and barren land.  And they want it to stop.

Health in Harmony is one organisation that is an integral key to the growing awareness.  Founded by Dr Kinari Webb, it is a unique model that engages locals and government by linking human and environmental health care.  Humans are often torn, faced with the decision to take from their environment in order to save a child, or watching the child die. This is far from greed; it is survival.


It was 15 years ago that Dr Webb visited West Kalimantan as an undergraduate biology major, studying the orangutans of the forest.  She observed the link between illegal loggers felling trees and their desire to support their families.  Eyes wide open, she saw the desperate state of human health in the communities surrounding the park and realised that if this continued, the cycle could never be broken.

From left - patients, Dr Webb, Dr Hotlin Ompusunggu - director and dentist, a patient and organic farmer who almost died from a 12 year old foot injury, Erica - Director of the forest program and more patients.
From left – patients, Dr Webb, Dr Hotlin Ompusunggu – director and dentist, a patient and organic farmer who almost died from a 12 year old foot injury, Erica – Director of the forest program and more patients.

Seven years ago, she returned with a vision that is believed to be unique on the planet – creating a comprehensive program that would serve human health needs in order to preserve rain forest habitat.

It is founded on the principle that healthcare can be a powerful tool enabling individuals and communities to be healthy, while using their natural resources in more sustainable ways. High-quality healthcare is offered through conservation-oriented non-cash means or at a very low cost.  This has led to a 68% decline in illegal logging.

A survey of locals found that almost 95% did not want to lose their forest.  But, they did need healthcare and organic farming in order to stop taking from the land and to give back to it in a positive way.

Villagers can exchange woven mats, manure, baskets or seedlings for healthcare, but as the organic farming program impacts the area, more and more are able to pay the small fee.  The clinic is frantically busy.  During my tour, an old lady is rushed in carried by distraught relatives.  Dr Webb smiles.  The clinic was due to close at four o’clock, but frequently staff stay back to attend to emergencies.  They currently see around 60-70 patients every day.

An elderly man is sitting quietly in the corner, listening to her presentation.  She nods toward him.  He was once an illegal logger, she explains, but now has an income from his organic farming business.   She introduces another farmer.  He first came to the clinic after fainting in an organic farming training session.  Near death, he had developed septicemia in his blood from a 12-year-old fractured foot that had been sustained while fetching coconuts from a palm tree, but was never treated.  His health had ebbed and flowed but without treatment, the poisoning would never leave his body and death was inevitable.

Hooked up to an intravenous drip, doctors explained he would have to stay in the clinic overnight, perhaps for a few days.  Visibly distressed, the man begged to be allowed to return to the training, which had already helped him double his income.  Reluctantly they agreed and he finished his course, albeit propped up in the corner with a portable drip attached to his arm.

‘Green’ villages receive benefits such as free glasses.  Classified as such if they have had no logging for an agreed period, the other ‘red’ villages still receive cheap care, but it is a powerful motivator if all cost can be removed.  Around 18,000 villages have benefited so far.  In the first five years they saw 15,000 patients over 34,000 visits, in addition to mobile care and an ambulance service.  Tuberculous, the area’s biggest medical threat, is now declining.  There have also been decreases across child mortality, diarrhea and the number of loggers in the family.  In logging areas, malaria increases by a whopping 380 times, but it is now almost wiped out, also aided by the availability of nets to families.

Each village appoints Forest Warriors, equipped with mobile phones and keen eyes to report back any illegal activity.  They meet with offending families to talk about the issue, as in almost every case, economic hardship is the impetus for the crime, not greed.

Health in Harmony is made up of several projects.  Asri Klinik is the healthcare hub.  They are urgently seeking funding for a new hospital to help cater for the growing number of patients as word of mouth spreads.  There are already 40 staff, but Dr Webb feels that only two or so more nurses will be needed with the expansion.  Indeed while I am there, nurses regularly tap me on the arm asking to squeeze past me in the cramped room.

They run health education in the village and Asri Kids, founded by a family who volunteered on site with Klinik ASRI for an entire summer. Teens Lucia and Ana Sofia Amieva-Wang made friends with the local children, and quickly realised most of them had never been to see the local National Park that surrounded them, or the orangutans that live there.  Many of their parents were learning about the importance of forest protection from ASRI but the girls saw a missing link, that would help educate the children as well help build a more secure future.

With the intention of educating local children about forest protection, they could now give the opportunity to experience the beauty of an unlogged rain forest.  In 2012, Asri Kids was born.  (Pictured Lucia, and program leader Etty.)

Asri Kids

Around 20-25 boys and girls from four to nineteen years attend classes at a time: rainforest biology and diversity, threats to the environment, trash and proper disposal, making recycled paper, a field trip to an organic farm, planting seedlings, making compost, healthy eating and hygiene.  I meet Lucia and Ana – quiet, typical teens when questioned by an adult, giggling girls when chatting with their friends.  But remarkable humans making a difference.

Patients often return to simply say thank you.  The clinic serves more than just health care, it is a hub in the community linking lives.
Patients often return to simply say thank you. The clinic serves more than just health care, it is a hub in the community linking lives.

Health in Harmony supports a Goats for Women project, as well as helping with reforestation.  We visit a new corridor they are planting that hopes to attract the orangutans back down to the base of the mountain.  Erica is director of the forest project.  She laughs as she shares how she asked the farmers to build a small hut, reminiscent of the small ones in the centre of rice paddies put there for shelter.  Perhaps it could be big enough for children to sit and learn their lessons, she had mused.

Her eyes widened when she first saw the two-story bamboo house they built instead.  With a four by five metre covered room upstairs and seating around a dirt floor below, locals exhibited the true commitment they now have to conservation and education.

_DSC5618Kalimantan West June 2014

I make my way slowly up the mountain to the precipice, gasping at the stunning patchwork of rice paddies spread before me, nestled in the crescent moon shape of the park.  A gibbon sings to another high in the trees and a white-headed kite circles on the invisible air currents. Orang-utan nests are dotted along the trail – one orang-utan to one nest, and with distance between them, highlighting the need for a great expanse of forest for their survival.

Someone once told me that I had more compassion for animals than I did people.  At the time, that may have been true – perhaps it still is although I sense it is sometimes more Westerners than humankind as a whole.  I wrestle with images of war and destruction on the planet, of shopping centres filled to the brim with consumable goods and wastelands overflowing with rubbish that simply cannot be disposed of at a speed equal to that of its production.  I weep as I hear of endless battles against child slavery, people trafficking, drugs, rape, murder and the awful way we treat each other, even on a social level at times.  Born with a strong sense of justice and desire for peace, it is the jungle and its creatures that can actually talk to me in a voice I long to wrap around me, long after I leave its cool shelter.  Perhaps humankind has poisoned that part of me that once kicked off my shoes to wade in singing waters, because it is mankind who has filled them with filth.

But when I looked into the proud eyes of a once illegal logger, I found reason for hope.  Hands reaching out across the globe to help others in their quest for survival provide some of the answers that my troubled mind was looking for.  As voices combine and the chant grows louder, eco-warriors are streaming out of average homes, huts and workplaces.  Armed with cameras and pens, they are taking to the Internet en-mass, sharing the urgency needed to arrest the destruction and to protect the planet, if not for ourselves, but the gentle people who inhabit almost untouched regions such as West Kalimantan.

That night, the sun turns the sky a vivid red and orange unlike anything I have witnessed before.  The mangroves are a silhouette jutting out to the ocean, and mist swirling above them creates a ghostly trail at odds with the tropical warmth of the evening.

Returning to my highly technical world of cameras, computers, YouTube and writing, I am wrestling with how I am both part of the problem and the solution.  An otherwise perfectly good computer sits next to my new one, having died an early death that was more expensive to fix than replacing it.  Frustrated, I fumble my way through new programs that have evolved since I set it up five years ago – most no longer work with the current operating system.  Behind all these necessary programs, sit people in offices on their own computers, a jungle of consumption in order to help me produce images and words.  Yes, I am part of the problem and  no, I have no idea yet how to resolve this, for with the use of my technology, I am also part of the solution.

I open my pantry door and wonder what products contain a part of Borneo.  What fool designs food that requires such massive culling of forests, animals and people?  The “but it gives them employment” argument is moot once you have sat with smiling villagers, held the hands of their children, and shared a simple yet joyously tasty meal.

Conscious travel is more than walking gently through these magical communities.  It is listening and observing, sharing and helping, learning…and then learning some more.

One day, our resources that we so rely on will be consumed.  I truly believe there are alternatives, but we will need to revisit the places we took from in order to relearn how to thrive with what the planet so perfectly and generously gave.

I don’t know the answers.  But I do know that once the spirits of the jungle have penetrated your own soul, destruction is no longer an option.

Top of Guning_Borneo_30cm



To see the video of my trip and other videos of Indonesia, please visit the Bali Soul Journals YouTube channel.



facebook    For more images, visit – Bali Soul Journals Facebook and Soul Journals Facebook or our Pinterest albums (click the P below!)



Images and words copyright Clare McAlaney 2014.  The downloading of images from the website is not permitted without written permission, however links may be shared.

Soul Journals Travel will be launched later this year.  An eco company, we will offer tours to remote regions in Indonesia and Asia, and local conscious travel tours in Bali.  Please use the contact form below if you are interested.  A wide array of tours will be offered, including photography tours with renowned photographers and regions in the current book, Bali Soul Journals.







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