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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Hotlin Ompusunggu: Using Dentistry to Stop Deforestation

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Dental surgeon and conservationist Hotlin Ompusunggu is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

Ompusunggu combines conservation and healthcare through community-based projects, with a mission to break the cycle between poverty and illegal logging in Indonesia. Her innovative approach is having a measurable impact on both people and the environment. In that approach, the local communities who demonstrate care for the forest home of Borneo’s endangered orangutans get health benefits in return for themselves, at the program’s clinic. In recognition for her achievements in nature conservation, Hotlin won a 2016 Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) gold award.

Hotlin is the co-founder of Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), a nongovernmental organization in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. “Human health and environmental health are tightly linked. The key to global health is protecting the connection between human health and environmental health – at the local level,” ASRI says on its website. The NGO works with the communities of around 60,000 people who live alongside Gunung Palung National Park in southwest Borneo. Gunung Palung  is home to numerous endangered species, including some 2,500 wild orangutans, about 10 percent percent of the world’s surviving population. One of the biggest threats to the park and these animals is illegal logging.

The intersection of human and environmental health is at the core of what drives Hotlin. She is hopeful that the success of ASRI can serve as a model to other endangered communities and environments worldwide.

National Geographic Voices interviewed Hotlin about her philosophy and her work.

What is the “elevator pitch” you use to describe your outlook?

Not only can we have both healthy people and a healthy environment, but the two are interlinked. In reality, we cannot separate one from the other.

What did you want to be when you were grown up? How did that change and why?

I always wanted to be like Margaret Thatcher when I was grown up. She was my model for a woman who broke the stereotypes: brave, a leader with power that women usually cannot achieve. She broke down many traditions. I remember reading that once, when she was going home with her father and they passed many kids playing, her father told her, “Do things because you really want to do them, not because everyone is doing that.” I remember reading one of her rules to live by: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

However, my admiration for her faded away when I spent a year in England. I was told that during her leadership, the number of poor people increased while capitalism flourished. Later I understood that some of her policies were very unkind; the number of poor people grew.

What are the greatest opportunities for the rising generation of young people, and why?

The era where technology is enabling people to share ideas without limits will bring a new power to fuel the actions needed to take and connect people across boundaries, wherever connectivity is possible. Anyone can become well informed. Nobody is isolated.

At ASRI we have a program called ASRI Kids, a program started by two girls who were visiting from the U.S. who could not speak Indonesian, and the local kids couldn’t speak English. Somehow, they found connections. These two girls had the idea to share experiences with their friends in Indonesia, and they started to raise their voice and reach out to their friends and family, raising funds to start this enrichment program.

The ASRI Kids program brings local children a wider world view. They were so proud to find out that the orangutan lives only in Borneo and Sumatra; they started writing blogs about how important the orangutan is, and about protecting its habitat. They urged their parents to stop illegal logging. The U.S. kids learned about the challenge and opportunity from the Indonesian kids and together they had a much greater impact.

Looking back on what you have done, what are the biggest lessons learned? Opportunities taken and missed?

The biggest lesson learned is that saving the forest is not possible without listening to the community’s voice. In planning the ASRI project, we spent more time to listen. Most of the time the solution is not “rocket science”; you just need a big and open heart — and to follow with action ASAP.

In the first year of our ASRI program, we did our forest monitoring system ourselves, consulting with patrol personnel from the Park Bureau. But that part of the program wasn’t running well. After two years, in 2010, in our evaluation meeting, we asked the community members what we should do differently. They told us that they should be involved in forest monitoring. The park is so huge that it needs a lot of people to monitor what is going on; the ideal solution would be to have local people, who live right next to the forest, do the monitoring. This suggestion produced the Forest Guardian program that we started in 2011, and it is one of the best programs we have with their impact on community and the protection of the forest.

Who were(are) your heroes and mentors? Favorite authors and filmmakers? Who would you most like to meet?

I had many heroes growing up, especially my parents, who taught me to believe in myself and always do my best. My parents taught me passion and caring for others. Growing up, I was also inspired hearing stories of inventors, how they opened their minds and hearts to find new solutions.

Recently I met two new heroes: Sir David Attenborough is promoting saving the environment, endlessly. I met him just a few days before his 90th birthday and he was still very passionate and full of energy and charisma as he told me about his trip to Borneo, Indonesia. Another hero I recently met is Mr. Sadiman from Central Java, Indonesia, who planted trees by himself for over 20 years, and the impact of his work is now benefiting the community. Mr. Sadiman proves that you don’t have to be famous or highly educated to give back to save our environment. Now many people look up to him and even learn from his work.

Favorite author: James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small. I love his smart and funny way to express and relate the animal to human beings.

What is the best story you tell about yourself, a lesson learned, or a memorable (scary or thrilling) experience in the field?

Credit: Kinari Webb

In early 2005, about two weeks after Aceh was devastated by the tsunami, I volunteered to help organize a medical team. I found so many organizations doing medical aid. One day I was talking with a man in a camp set up for displaced people in Sigli, Aceh, who told me: “ I lost everything in my life, my house washed away, and now I have to stay in this camp sleeping on hard wood and covered with sand. And can you imagine how miserable my life is now, when I also have a toothache?” He found out that I am a dentist, and I learned that no one was providing dental care for these people. So when I returned from Aceh, I told my team I thought we should start giving dental care to these people. They agreed, and we soon recruited dentists from the U.S. and Indonesia to help with the work. We served not only the people of the camp but also local workers and even the army. I learned that, when helping, we need to listen, because our perception of what needs to be done may be different from what the people really need.

What is your favorite species, and why? Your favorite place on the planet?

I don’t have a particular favorite species; I love the community of species — monkeys, cats, all are part of the community.

I am not a very animal-oriented person, but I have learned that animals and human beings need to live harmoniously to the benefit of both. We are all interlinked.

My favorite places on Earth are not so much about the place itself but about the relationships, the surroundings and the human beings. Two places where I lived or visited reminded me how beautiful life is when human beings live harmoniously with animals, even wild and venomous animals

Living in Sukadana, the home of Project ASRI, I woke up one morning to see a snake hanging on my window. I slowly realized it was a big and venomous snake. I took a deep breath and then went to my neighbor to ask for help. My neighbor came in carrying a bamboo stick, and he walked toward my window. He placed the bamboo stick gently near the snake and talked to the snake, to coax it to slide on to the bamboo so it could be taken away. The snake moved to the bamboo and my neighbor walked out of my house carrying the bamboo with the snake; he then put it on the ground in the grass and sent the snake away. It was a very peaceful, yet for me quite intense. I was amazed how wisely, gently, and respectfully my neighbor treated the snake.

Another beautiful place I visited is Raja Ampat, in Papua. My team and I visited many islands and had discussions with them about health and conservation. I remember we were visiting a village head’s house, sitting on the porch that was built on water. The water was crystal clear; you could see the bottom of the water from the porch of the house. I was surprised when I saw a water snake. I told the village head. He was very calm: “It is ok, we are not disturbing them, they are not disturbing us, and leave them in peace.”

What are your fears and hopes for the future?

When I was in Seattle, I went to see a river that was dried for years, until people planted trees to try to bring the river back. I witnessed the salmon now swimming in the river. Similarly, in our reforestation work at ASRI, I have witnessed that replanting and caring for the forest succeeded in bringing back some of what was lost, and we occasionally have pictures of orangutan and other rare animals from our camera trap. So this is telling me that we can actually do something! But I am afraid that if we do not work fast enough, we will lose too much and we cannot bring it back. Too much thinking and too little action.

What should young people do if they want to pursue a career like yours?

Really go outside of the box and stereotypes!

I encourage people to do their best and believe in themselves. I don’t want to ask them to pursue a career like mine, because it will limit their actions. They should do something they believe in, make connections, work together with others and act for real impact.

Tell us something that most people may not know about you?

I fought a forest fire in 2013, together with my team. One Saturday I was told there was a fire in our reforestation site. I drove the truck and we tried to beat out the fire with anything we had. As a dentist I have no training to fight fires, but I knew the staff needed me and my support and encouragement as their leader.

I run marathons. During my training, I once started running at 2 a.m. and I experienced many things I never saw before, in the village where I had lived for years. People in the village are mostly early risers, and so are their animals. But 2 a.m. was still too early, and sometimes that I woke up the cows, who were a bit confused and ran with me for a while!

What is one thing you would really still like to see or do?

I want to see the success we had in Borneo repeated in other parts of Indonesia, such as Raja Ampat and Aceh. It is a very threatened ecosystem, and I am working with Health in Harmony (ASRI’s sister organization) to find all the solutions.

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