Meet Herni Kurnia, a field medic making the Sumatran rain forest her hospital

Herni reaches across a table to take someone's blood pressure

For Herni Kurnia, a medic and midwife working in the heart of the Sumatran rain forest, nature is her hospital—and that's just how she likes it.

Kurnia has been working with the Thirty Hills Forest Company, known as ABT, for the past year to provide free health care to Indigenous communities both at her clinic in the forest and in homes—the first health-care worker to permanently live in the area. Founded by WWF-Indonesia, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and The Orangutan Project, ABT operates an ecosystem restoration concession in the Thirty Hills landscape on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia—a highly diverse forest home to Talang Mamak and Orang Rimba Indigenous communities and a myriad of wildlife. Ecosystem restoration concessions are a type of commercial forestry use, like logging concessions, that are awarded by the government of Indonesia to companies committed to reversing deforestation through market-driven activities.

A view of Thirty Hills showing the tops of trees and blue skies

Overlooking the Thirty Hills forest.

In addition to protecting and restoring the forest, ABT's mission is to build strong relationships with local communities to support them in protection efforts. The company works especially closely with the Talang Mamak village of roughly 50 households that exists inside the boundaries of the restoration concession.

Last year, ABT was able to bring healthcare to forest-dwelling communities full-time. The health of forests and people is very much entwined; deforestation creates the conditions for the spillover of novel infectious diseases and the spread of vector-borne zoonoses—infections that spread between people and animals. Thirty Hills also sits in a region of the world with the highest-known number of viruses with zoonotic potential. To sustain nature and the health of communities that are stewards of these forests for the long term, WWF and ABT look to better understand how deforestation can affect human health, which includes on-the-ground activities with health professionals.

This is why Kurnia's work is so critical. ABT has been providing financial support and partnering with the local government health institution outside the concession for the past four years to bring health services to the communities deep in the forest through monthly mobile clinics. Together, they are combatting a number of health issues that the Talang Mamak community faces, from respiratory and dermatological issues to malaria, a vector-borne disease that can be associated with forest loss. Vector-borne diseases result from an infection transmitted to humans and animals by arthropods such as mosquitos, ticks, and fleas.

After receiving her master's degree in public health, Kurnia began working for Jambi Province's health department. But deep down, she knew her hunger for adventure and love of nature beckoned something out of the ordinary. Serving as the full-time field medic stationed at ABT's camp deep in the rain forest felt like her calling. 

"When I was being interviewed for the role and told all about what it would be like to live in the forest and the challenging conditions of being so remote, I was repeatedly asked if I was sure I wanted to do this," Kurnia said. "I never had a doubt that I wanted to do this. I was very sure. Working in the city and a hospital was too ordinary to me. I need more of a challenge."

However, not everyone was as easily convinced. Kurnia's parents weren't keen on the idea, concerned about her safety and the dangers the forest presented. But Kurnia's motivation and personal mission were unshakable. She spoke with the head of the local health institution and her relatives to assuage any fears her parents had. Only after staying with Kurnia at the camp for a few days to see her work firsthand did her mother ultimately give her blessing, seeing for herself the importance and impact of her daughter's efforts with the community.

Herni Kurnia stands in front of a newly built health clinic within ABT’s Thirty Hills forest camp.

A house within the Talang Mamak community's village of Simerantihan.

A health clinic within ABT's forest camp site was built with support from WWF donors and partners. Kurnia sees patients here, but it's when she makes house calls in two villages that her special skill set—her empathy and personality as much as her health expertise—really shines. Through these frequent visits, Kurnia has formed close bonds and relationships with the community and has been welcomed into their homes with open arms over the relatively short amount of time she has been with ABT—a feat not many outsiders of the Talang Mamak community have been able to accomplish so quickly.

Herni holds a moth in her hands and smiles at it

Herni Kurnia holds a butterfly during one of her community visits.

She visits the Talang Mamak community multiple times a week, often traveling on foot for at least 30 minutes from ABT's field base of operations to the village through long stretches of mud and unpaved trails.

"My work always starts with listening to the people to better understand what it is that is ailing them so I can dig deeper into possible sources and causes of these issues," she said. "By doing so, I can figure out whether medication is the best course for treatment or if it's a case for more education on best health practices."

Kurnia is working on slowly changing hygiene and sanitation practices so the community understands their importance in improving health and comfort.

But the challenges are never far away. Operating a health clinic and providing such services in the remote rain forest presents obvious challenges. Transportation to and communication with outside healthcare facilities is difficult; equipment is hard to come by, particularly when it comes to handling childbirth; and medications and testing can be in limited supply. Regardless of all that, Kurnia loves her work and is happy with where she is.

"I have so much empathy for these people," she said. "I care for them deeply. I feel connected to this community, as they have welcomed me into their homes and lives. Together with ABT, I feel like I'm surrounded by family. Being in a remote place like this with these people who all share the same mission, you build that trust and support you need to succeed."