The honey produced in Indonesia’s Danau Sentarum National Park doesn’t taste or look like supermarket honey. Its color varies from light gold to deep amber; its consistency is thinner – more like syrup. And its taste is both sweet and somewhat medicinal – perhaps hinting at honey’s natural antiseptic qualities. It is about as natural as you can get without sticking your hand in a hive. And the people who collect it know that their livelihoods depend on nature functioning as it was meant to.
“Collecting honey is part of our cultural heritage. It’s a tradition,” says Ronnie Mulyadi, a 31-year-old father of two and member of the Buku Tamu honey producers’ association. “With WWF’s help, we have made this activity more profitable and more sustainable.”
WWF’s interest in honey comes from a desire to protect peat swamp forest and habitat for critically endangered orangutans
. The park has “utilization zones” where local residents are permitted to take timber for personal use, such as building a home or boat. But too often, the logging isn’t limited to the utilization zone, nor is it limited to personal use. This steady degradation of the forest – along with poaching – is pushing orangutans ever closer to extinction.
“We understand that people aren’t motivated to kill orangutans. They are trying to support their families and live a good life,” says Jimmy Syahirsyah, WWF-Indonesia’s communications coordinator in West Kalimantan. “We are promoting honey production
because it’s an activity local people are familiar with and it’s sustainable.”
Bees are good for business
Things have changed since the community got serious about honey production, Ronnie says. “The forest is better protected and our income has increased since we formed the association. We have also learned better production; before, we would just take the whole hive to get the honey. Now we have rules about leaving the core of the hive intact so the bees will be more productive.
We want orangutans in the forest because they disperse the seeds for fruit trees. If they are there, we know the forest is in good condition, and bees need a forest in good condition,” he says.
Ronnie admits that sometimes orangutans are competition for the bees’ sweet treat, but this is remedied by placing the artificial hives in wet areas – orangutans don’t like to swim. This makes them rather unusual in this wetland ecosystem
. The park is dominated by lakes, rivers and seasonally flooded forests. It is home to more than 185 fish species
and, according to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the last vast area of freshwater swamp forest remaining in Indonesian Borneo. Fish spawn among the tree roots and other aquatic plants, and this vegetation feeds and protects young fish.
“The healthier condition of the forest has actually increased the fish population in the last three years, and that’s our main source of income,” Ronnie says. “Last year we could really see the economic benefits because honey production protected the forest.
“Now we can build the kind of houses we want, and send our children for higher education, which was a real headache before.” While even small villages will offer some primary education, secondary education usually requires students to migrate to bigger towns. This means paying for travel, lodging and food, in addition to school fees, Ronnie explains.
He adds with a proud smile, “We can also have a 5.5 horsepower engine on our boats, instead of just a paddle.” WWF knows that it’s benefits like these that are going to keep Ronnie and others like him onboard with forest conservation.