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Indonesia - Every year, the traditional custodians of the Mount Mutis Nature Reserve in West Timor, Indonesia, travel back to their ancestral lands for an important cultural ritual – the harvesting of wild honey.

The annual honey harvest is important not only for the continuation of an ancient tradition, but is proving to be an important contributor to social harmony, livelihoods and  the preservation of the nature reserve as instructed by national law, according to scientist Ani Adiwinata Nawir.

“It’s a success story for community-based landscape management and how it can contribute to forest conservation in harmony with national policy,” she says.

Watch the honey harvest here.

As a non-timber forest product, Mount Mutis honey provides supplementary income for its harvesters’ livelihoods. And because honey production relies on a healthy forest environment, there is an extra economic incentive to ensure protection of the ecosystem it depends on.

   The Mutis-Timau landscape, West Timor, Indonesia.

An ancient tradition

For the Olin-Fobia community, harvesting wild honey is sacred business that involves a combination of indigenous and religious rituals.

The traditional custodians live a two-day journey from the forest where they collect the honey. When the blossoms of the Eucalyptus alba appear, preparations begin for a two-to three-week camp. Food and shelter must be prepared for the journey, and personal conflicts are expected to be resolved before departure, ensuring social harmony among the community.

   The whole community joins the journey to the harvest location, and the rewards are shared equally among them. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR
   Community member Yohanes Palo waits for the harvest. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR
   Isak Fobia, leader of the Olin-Fobia community. He is responsible for guiding the honey harvesting ceremony from the beginning to the end, and for dividing the harvest among the community. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

Camp is set up at the place considered to be the ‘gateway’ of the harvest area, and religious prayers are performed. These are followed by customary rituals that include the singing and chanting of mantras, and the sacrifice of a boar to be eaten by the community.

At nightfall, a group of people head out to the harvest location. Led by the amaf, or community leader, the group includes individuals with the technical and spiritual knowledge to safely collect the wild honey. The dangerous task involves climbing to branches up to 80 meters above the ground, where hives hang from the towering trees. An older tree can play host to as many as 120 hives.

One person, the meo one, makes the climb while another, the meo menesat, sings below, flattering the giant honey bees by calling them ‘beautiful forest princesses’, and asking permission to take their honey.

“They consider the bees as their partners in the harvest,” Ani says.

Using fire and smoke to repel the bees, the harvesters slice the honeycomb from the tree, bringing it back to share equally among the community, as determined by the amaf.

   A single tree can host more than 100 hives. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

They consider the bees as their partners in the harvest.

Ani Adiwinata Nawir, CIFOR scientist

A sustainable product

There is usually enough honey from the harvest for the community to use for their own purposes, and to sell outside the area. As much as 30 tons of wild honey is produced and harvested in Mount Mutis annually, accounting for 25 percent of total production in the province of East Nusa Tenggara.

The World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia (WWF Indonesia) is working together with the community-run Mutis Community Network (JMM) to brand and package the product for better market impact. The initiative is part of WWF Indonesia’s Green and Fair Products campaign, which promotes the development of sustainable products sold at a fair price.

   The unusual sight of a honey harvester working by day. The honeycombs are usually harvested at night, using fire to drive away the giant honey bees (Apis dorsata). Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The wild honey is now sold as “Mt. Mutis” honey, exported mainly to Java, Sulawesi and Bali in Indonesia. The commercial success story is good news for Kanoppi’s research into non-timber forest products and the multiple benefits they can bring poor communities.

The sale of honey brings additional income for the whole community. Since it doesn’t involve cutting down trees, the harvest has a low impact on the protected Mount Mutis Nature Reserve. And because the continued production of honey relies on the health of the entire ecosystem, there is an additional incentive for the community to preserve it for generations to come.

   Standing by a Eucalyptus alba, or white gum tree. the tree's blossoms are the source of Mount Mutis wild honey. Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

Local law, national law

Overlapping laws and regulations from the central, provincial and district governments determine the types of forest product uses allowed in the area. However, the research has found that local people are generally unaware of these rules and how they apply to the forest products that they depend on for their livelihoods. Nonetheless, customary laws are inadvertently delivering on national laws by regulating access to, and use of, protected forest.

Kanoppi’s research has found that the traditions surrounding the wild honey harvest may be among the most sustainable and effective governance measures now protecting the national nature reserve.

At other times of the year, nearby communities collect honey made from the blossoms of the Eucalyptus urophylla, known locally as the ampupu tree. But the Eucalyptus alba honey harvest is reserved for the Olin-Fobia community. Mutual respect among communities in the Mutis-Timau landscape for traditions regarding forest governance, and shared interest in the continuation of those traditions, are in effect fulfilling national policies on forest protection.

The project’s recommendation to support the honey harvest tradition has already been adopted in the district government’s strategy on landscape-level integrated management of non-timber forest products, as a reference for local government agencies.

Ani says that this success suggests great potential for customary laws in sustainable natural resource management. It also suggests that better participation is needed by local people in creating the laws that affect them and their livelihoods, she says.

Ani works as part of the Kanoppi research project, a combined effort between the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). The Kanoppi project aims to develop the production and marketing of timber and non-timber forest products that can improve smallholder livelihoods across Indonesia.

Additional contributors to this story: Yeni F. Nomeni, Melki Fobia, Novemris Tefa and Oktofianus Tanesi of the Olin-Fobia community.

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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