Chainsaw Buyback: Just Transition in the Bornean Rainforest

Chainsaw Buyback: Just Transition in the Bornean Rainforest


One of my take-homes from attending the COP23 climate change negotiations in November was just how strongly environmental and labour groups are now, rightly, pushing for a “Just Transition” to ensure that workers are supported as we move from a fossil-fuel economy to a low-carbon one.

Attention to this hasn’t so far been a strength of the climate-health community, which is surprising given that income is a key social determinant of health.  I suspect this has been because the climate-health community was, until recently, very small, and we were more-or-less trying to call a Climate Code Blue in a situation where our medical colleagues were unaware that climate change was a threat to health at all.  Now though, as climate-health gradually moves into the medical curriculum and is on the radar of more physicians, it's time to ensure that supporting displaced workers is included in our work.

So—I was surprised to arrive in Borneo and discover the multiple elements of the ASRI/Health in Harmony program that are designed to support a Just Transition.  They don’t call it that—it’s just a series of solutions they’ve come up with during their 10 years of discussions with the now-33 villages that are part of their program. The Chainsaw Buy-Back program, training in organic farming, a program to provide widowed women with goats, and a discount system at the hospital for people from villages where logging is minimized—all of these are designed to support the villagers in doing what they say they all want to do—protect the beautiful rainforest in their backyard.

Dr Alvi of ASRI, myself and the kids accompanied the Chainsaw Buy-Back program coordinator, Angus, one day when he was setting out to sign two contracts with people from the village of Sedahan, which is within the boundaries of the National Park.  On the way there, Angus described how he has four visits with each Chainsaw-Buy-Back participant—at the first he explains the program to them; at the second they talk about what kind of a business they would like to build with the start-up grant and loan that ASRI provides; at the third visit—the one we were on—they sign the deal and hand over and dismantle the chainsaw; and at the fourth Angus takes them shopping for the materials they need for their business. Participants receive a 4 million rupiah grant and 6 million further as a loan.  This is in an area where the monthly income on minimum wage is 2.3 million rupiah but average income is below that at 1.2-1.5 million/month.

We met Selamen, a farmer, at the first house we stopped at.  He told us that he didn’t realize good harvests by using manual, traditional agricultural practices on his 1.25 hectares, so he rented his fields to others and worked as a logger.  He'll use the loan to purchase modern equipment and hire other people to work on his rice fields.  Angus notes that the local forest guardian was the one who approached Selamen about the Chainsaw Buyback program, and that he was also encouraged to participate by the National park police.

The other participant, Jaka, is a fisherman, but has taken side jobs as a logger when his home needed repairs or there were medical bills to pay.  He’ll use program funds to upgrade from a traditional fishing boat that he would paddle for a whole day to his fishing location, to a motorboat that can get there in 4 hours. Four people signed the contract at his house—Angus, the forest policeman Budi, Jaka—and Jaka’s wife Hatifah. I asked Hatifah if she was happy that Jaka was part of the program and she nodded. She’s excited to have her husband home more—and as I complemented her on the view of the beautiful tree-covered hills behind her house, she grinned, “That’s why we participated.”

Participation is making a difference: when ASRI started in 2007, there were 1,350 logging households, which decreased to 450 households in 2012, and 150 in 2017 (an 89% decline from baseline). It’s impossible to prove a direct link between those stats and ASRI’s programs, but given the comprehensiveness of their program it makes sense that it at least played a factor

It made me think about how unnecessarily polarized our debate often is in Canada: there probably isn’t a person in our country who doesn’t want clean air, water and a functioning climate—but if they have to choose between that and putting food on the table—well—who wouldn’t choose to feed their kids?  I’ve seen here in Borneo that when a multidisciplinary team including physicians spends many hours listening to people, and asking them what it would take for them to stop cutting down the rainforest, and then designs programs to respond to their concerns…you end up with a way of transitioning that is fair and acceptable to people—and that works.  I wonder what physicians in Canada could accomplish if we spent more time asking fossil fuel economy workers what it would take for them to transition? I am more than ready to start.

As we sat in Jaka’s home, his teenaged sons were on their smart phones, taking as many pictures of us as we were of them.  It’s a big change since I last did international medical work, in Djibouti in 2010.  In all my previous travels to less-developed countries I felt like a bit of a voyeur when I took photos—I would ask first, but it still left an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.  On this trip, the subject-object relationship is much more even—I think more people have approached us to take selfies with my kids than we have taken photos of Indonesians!  I’m amazed at how much this change makes the power differential feels smaller.  It makes a difference when we are all in control of the story.



I was taking some pics of the National Park in the background as we left, sweating in the 30ish degree humid heat.  Right then Dr Alvi asked, “I have read about Nunavut. Do you live near there? Is there life? Human life in Nunavut?”

I laughed. There are so many stories for us to tell one another. Here's to taking the time to connect, and to listen.

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