Valentinus Heri

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2009
This description of Valentinus Heri's work was prepared when Valentinus Heri was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009 .


In a forest wetland of international importance in West Kalimantan, where the inhabitants had resorted to working for the unsustainable timber market to make a living, Valentinus Heri has facilitated a thriving forest honey business to boost the local economy while protecting the forests. He has connected harvesters from eight remote areas and helped create a platform for communities to participate in Indonesia’s ongoing debate about how to balance a commercial expansion into forest areas.

The New Idea

Heri and his organization, Riak Bumi, have facilitated the development of an innovative honey business in the West Kalimantan forest community, allowing indigenous forest dwellers to use forest resources while preserving natural biodiversity. He seized the potential of a forest honey community business which had already been built up by earlier generations to connect local producers to outside markets. Now the forest honey collectors, the majority of whom are young people, have increased their income eightfold. Riak Bumi helps communities enter competitive markets by developing their harvesting, packaging, and marketing techniques. With this newly developed, flourishing business, impoverished forest dwellers are no longer pressured to earn a living by cutting down trees or exploiting forest resources in an environmentally unfriendly way. Though providing for family members takes precedence over protecting forests, people are more likely to respond to initiatives to protect their environment and understand the effects of resource depletion if they can first connect their own survival to the forest.

The high economic return has raised concerns from the wider Indonesian population for the need to protect the forests, which are the habitat of Asia’s indigenous honey-producing Dorsata bees, from unsustainable resource exploitation. This viable, sustainable livelihood is supported by customary law (i.e. an indigenous law or custom that protects native population’s land rights). It states that the rights of local populations must be taken into consideration with the management of natural resources within or around their communities. Along with developing the local economy by selling forest products in other markets, Heri is working with all jurisdictions to revitalize this ineffective law to give local populations their legal right to participate in resource management. He has facilitated a relationship between forest communities and legal bodies to enact a policy that limits commercial exploitation of forest areas. The model has successfully reduced forest fires, incidences of cyanide explosive fishing, and other environmentally hazardous practices in the Santarum Park in West Kalimantan.

The Problem

Indonesia is the third biggest gas emission producer, behind the U.S. and China (Wetland International & Delft Haydraulics, 2006). Sixty-six percent of Indonesia’s annual CO2 emissions, 2,000 mega tons, is a result of excessive deforestation, land conversion, and devastating forest fires across 20 million hectares of land. On a global scale, such destruction contributes to global warming. It also directly affects the forest sites’ natural large water-regulating systems. The West Kalimantan is the oldest peat forest in the world, acting as a natural reservoir that then delivers water downstream in the dry season. The disruption of ecosystem equilibrium also endangers the livelihood of 1.3 million indigenous people living inside or adjacent to the national parks across the country.

A population of 10,000 Iban and Malay ethnic groups indigenous to the West Kalimantan region is directly threatened by the depletion of resources surrounding their communities. The communities span across 132,000 hectares of land in the Danau Sentarum National Park (DSNP) within West Kalimantan and have been living in the park for hundreds of years before it became a reserve. The official size of the entire park, including a buffer zone area, is 197,000 hectares. However, recent development and commercial activity suggest that the size of the buffer zone is not yet completely agreed upon, certainly not within West Kalimantan. There are disparities between the provincial planning maps, which has a palm oil concession overlapping the buffer zone by approximately 32,000 hectares. The park management officially states that there are 18 companies (six in the buffer zone) spread around the park, covering a total of 384,395 hectares, that hold legal permission to develop palm oil plantation from the Kapuas Hulu District, despite not having passed the Environmental Impact Assessment Analysis from the West Kalimantan provincial government.

Groups living in the West Kalimantan region are now forced to survive in a rapidly diminishing environment and often must resort to exploiting their natural resources for outside markets, adding to the environmental damage. For example, people log illegally for cash, supported by investors from neighboring countries. Others make their living on slash and burn cultivation, creating fires for forest clearance. Most communities make a living from fishing, but due to declining catches, they resort to hazardous fishing practices. During the rainy season, people try to find temporary work in the city. Although many of their parents were once forest honey gatherers, the job disappeared in later generations as it is not profitable and bee colonies are scarce.

In addition, indigenous groups are largely isolated and unprepared to participate in policy debates to restrict deforestation and other resource management decisions. The continued health of the forest also depends on political decisions. Indonesia is working out where it will allow commercial plantation, especially involving foreign investment in palm oil. This political decision involves different levels of law; central national park law, local government for the buffer zone, international conventions, and people’s customary law. It is challenging to achieve a coordinated review of decisions, especially in Indonesia’s trend to decentralize governance.

The Strategy

Heri has improved outdated techniques to manage and harvest forest honey and expanded producer and consumer networks in the honey business for indigenous populations. Traditionally, honey collecting has been an unorganized, informal profession. Communities involved in the honey business have limited connections to one another and have been unable to control their markets because they were subject to the prices set by middlemen. Heri has pioneered the formation of Danau Sentarum Forest Honey Bee Collectors’ Association (APDS), a formal, organized network for Indonesian forest honey collectors. The APDS monitors the honey quality and sets the market price. They manage the group’s money so that they have bargaining power over traders and are not exploited. Currently eight forest honey collector groups, totaling 158 members in six villages who were once isolated from one another, have joined APDS. They collectively manage 13,200 honey-board harvest systems covering 35 percent of the park area. The collaboration between groups has increased their productivity by up to 200 percent, with two to three potential harvests per season. Heri has also connected Indonesian forest honey collectors with communities who gather honey from the same species of bee in Vietnam to facilitate the sharing of sustainable harvesting and post-harvesting techniques.

By building this national network, Heri and Riak Bumi have opened a channel of communication and collective action among forest communities. Honey collector groups can collectively participate in the debate about borders and regulations for environmental conservation, such as current concerns over a palm oil expansion plan that threatens to enter the buffer-zone area in Indonesia. It is widely known that the palm plantations degrade the soil and ecosystems they replace. The presence of such plantations would threaten the organic certification so key to consumer interest in the forest honey product.

Heri then collaborated with the BIOCert organic certification agency to introduce organic certification to APDS. In 2007, after a year of hard work in applying the new quality control system, APDS obtained the organic certification. This is the first organic certificate given by BIOCert for forest honey products in Indonesia. The certification is a key tool for quality control and for generating greater returns. As part of their compliance with the certification, the producers apply their own rules to create an internal control system (ICS) to regulate their product. For example, APDS prohibits smoke harvesting and slash and burn cultivation, raising awareness of the hazards of forest fires. This system of regulation is applied within each group, and sanctions are given to non-compliant members. Improved quality and organic certification have boosted the price to eight times higher than before. Due to the economic incentive, many young forest bee collectors have returned to manage and harvest their bee colonies. Some members have started following the ICS certification standard for an eco-friendly fishing system. Heri has partnered with a pro bono marketing organization to create an upscale label to mirror the high-quality organic honey product. The label explains how the honey is helping the forest conservation movement. The President of Indonesia and his family are among the growing consumer base, and the product has been marketed at Garuda Indonesia international flights.

Heri is creating an incentive for the government as well as local communities to be engaged in the forest conservation movement. He mobilizes APDS members and a growing network of allies to take an active role in policy decisions related to their environment. APDS conducts annual gatherings where members gather from their remote regions for three days of training and planning. There is currently a plan to plant palm oil in the buffer zone around the nationally protected Santarum Park. However, while the park falls under central government control, the buffer area is controlled by the local jurisdiction, the Kapuas Hulu District Government, which has been open to granting permits for palm plantations. The buffer zone is the ideal site of micro-hydroelectric projects because it has headwaters and natural reservoirs. The electrification project has the support of a different local government official than the department inclined to permit the plantation. Heri is planning to partner with the Sumbawa District Government to help approach the Kapuas Hulu District Government. He has facilitated collaboration between communities in the buffer and forest zones who share strong incentives to protect both, updating information about the progress of the project and maintaining a dialogue by calling community members and being involved on community radio programs. Heri is also partnering with the Center for International Forestry Research to conduct research on how local government interests can be met while protecting forest land. He has also connected with Greenpeace International and their international campaign against palm oil mismanagement to approach the biofuel or palm oil buyers in the international market.

APDS is part of the co-management team with the National Park of central government law. The Ministry of Forestry has also become involved in launching the organic certification product, and Heri has managed a delegation of the members of APDS to meet with the national Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta, a radical shift from the former isolation and invisibility of communities in distant parks. They are lobbying for the ministry to choose palm plantation sites in places besides the forest reserves and buffer zones due to its environmental impact on lake water and thus the organic quality of the honey. The Forestry Minister has agreed to give a letter of recommendation to the local government whose jurisdiction the park is under and forest license holders, to acknowledge the rights of local people to manage the forest honey and other non-timber forest products in their customary land, and that these customary rights extend to the buffer zone. Heri has also engaged other local government offices to conserve the natural resources in the buffer zone area. He has developed a strategy to reach local people living in the buffer zone and upstream areas in the north of the park by building a micro-hydropower system to give such distant communities access to water. The development of this service is the responsibility of the Public Works Department/the Government Electricity Company.

Heri has also embraced the help of other citizen organizations (COs) and forest honey collectors to further break the isolation of many of the forest communities, facilitating collaborative action. In 2005, together with an organization in Southeast Sulawesi that has already replicated his model, Heri set up the Indonesia Forest Honey Network (JMHI) to connect APDS and other forest honey collectors, COs, and groups involved in the protection of the industry. JMHI has partnered with the Dian Niaga business company, a product distributor. Ranch Market, Healthy Choice, and AMWAY (a leading marketing company) are among the companies that have already made commitments to buy forest honey produced by JMHI members, especially those with organic certification.

By broadening his base of allies and working with the international organization Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), JMHI has helped boost the advocacy work at every level, including international. Currently 11 national and international COs, several local governments, and more than 1,000 honey collectors are spread across eight provinces in four islands (Sumatra, Sulawesi, Sumbawa, and Kalimantan) have joined JMHI. In order to expand internationally, Heri has co-founded the Asia Forest Honey Network, “Madhu Duniya,” with its secretariat in India. Through partnership with the NTFP, his model is currently being successfully replicated in Cambodia, Thailand, and India.

The Person

Heri is of the Iban Dayak peoples, born in Lanjak, West Kalimantan. He grew up in the current National Park, which was his playground when he was a child. His father is a well-known figure in the area, and he sent Heri to elementary school in Singkawang, outside of their village, and to high school and university in Pontianak.

When Heri went to university he studied law, with emphasis in “customary rights.” Heri’s grandfather was once cheated by a man who offered to help him make his land certified in accordance to the material law, but lost his land as he never saw the land certificate himself before he signed. His grandfather’s loss motivated him to study natural resource law. Very few people from indigenous forest communities know about these laws or the meaning of their customary land rights, so they are dependent on outsiders and policymakers. Since then, Heni has encouraged his own sons to study law and most have gone on to become lawyers. When Heri did research in his hometown, he learned about other ethnic groups in the park, and moved around these areas to be able to address and understand the issues.

In 1995 Heri worked at the Wetlands International Indonesia Program at Lake Sentarum National Park wetland conservation project as a Community Conservation Officer. During his three years of work, he learned about the local potentials and needs in addressing quality, price, and market control by the middlemen. In search of sustainable techniques to improve the quality, Heri visited Vietnam and found alternative sustainable harvesting techniques. He then sent some of the Indonesian forest honey collectors to Vietnam to learn from the techniques. However, the Wetland International Indonesia Programme closed the project in 1997, and the honey collectors still had to face problems over the price control set by middlemen.

During the following three years, Heri worked at Dian Tama Foundation as a project leader where he gained experience in product development. For years Heri thought of how to overcome the forest honey price monopoly by the middlemen. He was moved by the forest honey collector’s complaint that the project bought the honey from only some of them. Heri then realized that people needed a coalition of honey collectors to control the price. He resigned from Dian Tama, and with his colleagues co-founded Riak Bumi, to develop the association and create a wider link for the forest honey collectors to balance conservancy and a sustainable livelihood.