Fighting Climate Change by Creating Sustainable Lives

Health in Harmony Indonesia

By Kait Spielmaker.

On a temperate Monday night in the Valley, I was fortunate enough to meet Trina Noonan. Noonan is one of the directors of Health in Harmony, a nonprofit started in 2005 with a goal to create initiatives to stop deforestation in underdeveloped Indonesian villages, while giving villagers the tools and resources to live sustainable lives. We sat down to discuss her background and what led her to Health in Harmony. The organization’s objective is to listen and focus on win-win outcomes for individuals and to present solutions and resources for social issues. Trina was friendly and insightful, and everything she and Health in Harmony are doing gives me hope for our humanity and our planet moving forward.

Kait Spielmaker: Tell me about what led you to where you are today? What made you interested in this kind of work?

Trina Noonan: I got my master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana and what I was studying while I was there was sustainable community development. How people could be living in balance with their environments and particularly women’s roles in that [environment], religious communities’ roles in that, and how really realizing that social justice can be achieved through environmental action. People need healthy environments to live in or else it can really promote some of these social issues we see all over the world. I was looking for an organization that recognized people as part of their ecosystems and not trying to cut people out or distance them. Traditional conservation hasn’t been done with a social justice lens and therefore has further disadvantaged people who have already been marginalized, like indigenous communities. I wanted to find an organization that understood the interconnection of people with their place and the two-way street where healthy people need a healthy environment and a healthy environment needs healthy people. When I found Health in Harmony, it was a perfect fit.

KS: Tell me about Health in Harmony and its work in Indonesia?

TN: Health in Harmony partners with an Indonesian organization on the ground. We were both founded by the same woman, Dr. Kinari Webb, where we both operate very closely, yet independently of each other. There is a lot of autonomy and capacity building in the communities and within Indonesia itself. I always say it doesn’t make sense for a group of people sitting in an office in Portland, Oregon to try to be running a hospital in Indonesia. So we have two organizations set-up and work very closely together. Our partner is doing the on-the-ground health care and conservation work and they run a health care clinic that is based on community requests. So, like I was talking about in the previous presentation, we started off a little over a decade ago now with a methodology we call “radical listening.” We went to every community around the national park where we worked and asked “What do you need in order to protect this rainforest?” and “Why are you cutting it down and how can we help you?” and every single place said the same two things: health care and alternative livelihoods. So that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 12 years or so is running a health care clinic that has progressive discounts for villages that are not engaged in logging in the national park and alternative non-cash payment options so people can pay with seedlings, manure, or handicrafts. That’s the health care side – we run a clinic and we now have a hospital building that we’re still working on equipping and staffing. Then we have a whole suite of conservation programs. We work with individual loggers to buy their chainsaws with a part gift, part small business loan and then they and their wives actually each start a business. Two businesses actually come out of one chainsaw. We also have a reforestation program that’s directly working on reforesting the park, and what I love about the reforestation program is tropical or re-rainforestation is actually really difficult to do. We’ve done test plots and what grows back, typically, is just grasses. It’s not a rainforest that grows back when things have been completely clear cut from logging. We have done a lot of different experimentation with different methods to really find out what works best. I think that is really important so we have a really vibrant and intact ecosystem that’s growing back in these areas. We do a lot of community and childhood education both with public health issues and conservation locally and globally. We have on-the-ground monitoring programs to see where the logging is happening. They also have sustainable livelihood programs which help people who have been logging transition to sustainable and organic farming and livestock management.

KS: How does the work in Indonesia and other places in the world affect your work with local zoos here in the U.S.?

TN: We have a two-way partnership with the zoos where they are supporting our work largely financially and with expertise and support with zoo vets, and then our story kind of becomes their story. A lot of people don’t know this but zoos are actually one of the biggest conservation forces and are really focused on education. They are looking for conservation stories to tell and ways for the animals they have to be ambassadors for those wild cousins. We provide information and on-the-ground stories with what’s going on with the conservation of wild species to these education hubs who see so many visitors, especially students, throughout the year.

KS: I think having a data-driven approach to conservation is so important because it allows us to quantify the impact we are having, whether it be good or bad. Can you talk to me a little bit about your approach to applying data to environmentalism?

TN: We really value having the data to show the influence of the work, and showing the influence that our donor dollars are having and have had since the very beginning. I think that is so crucial to have things such as baseline surveys. We did a baseline survey of 1,200 households around the park before we started any program implementation and got data on logging behavior, education, income, and health care and were able to compare that to a follow-up to the baseline survey that we did five and ten years after program implementation. One of our primary focuses right now as we’re starting to replicate this model to other sites is making sure that we have a monitoring and evaluation framework that can apply to multiple sites, and then can be cross-compared to each other. So we are working on the framework for that second site so that we can compare the results and try to see what the crucial elements are so they can then be scaled. We try to bring data to everything we do. We’ve partnered with universities and other outside volunteers and organizations. Stanford University is analyzing our 10-year impact data right now. They’ve looked at the decreases in logging and they were the ones that were able to help us show there’s an 88 percent decrease in the number of logging households from 2007 to 2017. We have now been able to corroborate this with GIS and satellite data that shows in this park that primary forest loss stabilized once our program was initiated, forest loss has started declining, and regrowth has started to climb.

KS: What is the number one problem facing us as a planet and what can we do to alter its outcome?

TN: To me, it’s climate change. The new field of planetary health that has come out of Harvard in the last couple years is coming out with a lot of research that shows how desperately we need a healthy planet or our health and wellbeing will, and already is suffering to unbelievable degrees. I don’t think it gets more serious than climate change. People often implicitly ask ‘Why should I care about what’s going on in Borneo?’ The thing is, some of these ecosystems that are really high conservation value, and rainforests in places like Indonesia and Brazil, store vast amounts of carbon. Some rainforest species are much more effective at turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. There are certain places that are critical to protecting, and Indonesian rainforests are absolutely one of them. So I think climate change, and I think focusing on forests. Forests have been really absent from climate change conversation lately. We’re getting very serious about the fact that forests are our futures. We need to have forests to have a sustainable future.


Kait is a Michigan native who recently relocated to Phoenix and is the administrative coordinator for Green Living Magazine. She is an avid hiker with a sense of adventure. She will be starting her master’s degree in Sustainable Tourism at Arizona State University this spring.

Photos by Stephanie Gee.

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