Dharsono Hartono is the Southeast Asia regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.

In the Central Kalimantan region of Indonesia on the southern edge of the island of Borneo, there is a parcel of land almost double the size of New York City. It’s home to 394 species of animals, including five critically endangered, eight endangered and 31 vulnerable species. It is also the home of the largest peatland forest conservation effort in the world. But prior to leading the effort, the project’s chief executive officer, Dharsono Hartono, had never stepped foot in a forest.  

YPO member Hartono leads the The Katingan Mentaya Project (managed by PT Rimba Makmur Utama), which works to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, create sustainable economic opportunities for local communities and issue carbon credits to the global market. 

It’s a tall order, and it’s work that in the past, was largely left for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund, not private companies. But Hartono and his partner Rezal Kusumaatmadja have risen to the challenge. 

We want to do this for the right reasons. We want to save the Earth and provide better livelihoods for communities. That’s how we survive. ”
— Dharsono Hartono share twitter

“Both of us really have pure intention,” says Hartono. “We want to do this for the right reasons. We want to save the Earth and provide better livelihoods for communities. That’s how we survive.”

The project annually generates 7.5 million triple gold certified carbon credits, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the road each year. Each credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide removed from the Earth’s atmosphere. Typically, companies purchase carbon to offset greenhouse gas emissions from industrial production. As more companies look to reduce their environmental impact, the market for carbon credits has increased significantly; in 2021, the voluntary market hit a record USD1 billion

But when Hartono first launched the project in 2008, his efforts were at the forefront of the carbon credit revolution. 

Taking a risk

Hartono grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, across the Java Sea from the land he now protects. From an early age he wanted to be an entrepreneur. His ambition led him to Cornell University, followed by six years working in banking in New York City. Still, he yearned to return home and forge a career path that made an impact. 

In 2007, a friend invited him to attend a palm oil convention, hoping to get him in the business. While there, he bumped into another friend, his Cornell classmate Kusumaatmadja, who made a very different proposition. 

“He challenged me personally,” Hartono remembers. “He told me about a new business where I could help save the environment, provide sustainable livelihoods for people and still make a profit. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

The idea Kusumaatmadja pitched? Compensation for conservation. Peat soil can contain up to 10 times more carbon dioxide than other tropical forests, and for decades, logging and palm oil farming — two of the largest industries in the region — had ravaged Indonesian forests, expelling carbon dioxide into the air, especially through quick-spreading fires. Preserving the land would combat global warming while protecting the forest as a wildlife habitat and improving the quality of life for local communities. 

Though neither man had managed land before, and privatizing conservation was a new idea, Hartono saw this as his big opportunity. The pair first set their sights on a 1,000-hectare (2,471 acres) parcel of land. Then Hartono found a substantially larger parcel: 157,857 hectares (390,073 acres). 

“We thought, if we are going to do this, let’s really go for it,” says Hartono. He vividly remembers his first flight surveying their land, marveling at the sheer size. “Looking back now, I think, ‘that’s just too crazy,”’ he says. “Imagine 150,000+ hectares, and two young men with no background, no nothing; just a dream.”

Making the case

They quickly learned their dream came with challenges. For the first six years, Hartono was the sole employee, and he collected no salary. 

But because the concept was outside of the typical NGO model, it caught the attention of the philanthropic world. They gained funding from foundations and used Kusumaatmadja’s donor connections to gain support.

“We pitched this as a new way of doing business,” says Hartono. “The money we asked for wasn’t going to the company, rather to the communities in the region.”

From the beginning, participation from the local communities was critical. Hartono visited the villages immediately surrounding their land to explain the project’s goals and figure out how to establish partnerships. He even shared his personal — and only— cell phone number so they could contact him about the project at any time. 

Connecting with the community helped him stay motivated in those early years. On one village visit, Hartono was traveling by private water taxi and struck up a conversation with a teen on her way to high school. When they disembarked, Hartono paid the fee, but noticed the young girl didn’t. Curious, he asked the driver about it, who told him simply that he wasn’t going to charge someone for going to school. 

“That really hit me,” Dharsono remembers. “It showed me this community was willing to help each other. I envisioned a future where our presence could make a difference.” 

Earning the locals’ trust was one thing. Gaining approval from the Indonesian government was quite different.

To officially begin their work, The Katingan Mentaya Project required a government-issued business license. The problem? Nothing like this had been done before. For the first six years, progress was slowed. It seemed they needed a hero to swoop in and save them. Then, one did.  

Unexpected allies 

While Hartono was trekking to villages, compelling donors and advocating for a business license, a group of high-profile Americans, including filmmaker James Cameron and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger were filming a documentary series about climate change called “Years of Living Dangerously.” 

One episode spotlighted the state of Indonesia’s forests, with actor Harrison Ford visiting the region to witness the immense damage. Ford met with Hartono, Kusumaatmadja and other environmental advocates before speaking Indonesia’s Minister of Forestry. They discussed illegal palm oil farmers who’d been destroying thousands of hectares of protected national park land. Ford’s visit garnered national news and put pressure on the government. Shortly after, police raided illegal palm oil plantations, and the minister publicly pledged to protect more peatlands. Finally, The Katingan Mentaya Project got its license.  

“To be impactful, you can’t just look at how you want to do things, but how you can work with others,” says Hartono of his Hollywood connections. “You must be openminded and work with all parties who understand and can help you through this journey. That’s how we gain strength and momentum.”

Creating a restorative culture

While Harrison Ford might have moved things along, Hartono needed to create lasting community partnerships for the project to succeed. 

Those living in the surrounding villages primarily worked in logging and palm oil farming using slash-and-burn methods. Hartono needed to transform an economy dependent on environmentally damaging practices to one that fostered a culture of stewardship. 

“We are not owners of the Earth, we are caretakers. That’s a big mindset difference,” says Hartono. “We must protect it for generations to come. We cannot treat these assets like they are ours. We must realize what we’ve done wrong and move on.”

To date, they have partnered with 34 villages that contribute to decision-making and help source sustainable initiatives for the project. Currently, 100% of the project staff is Indonesian, and 80% are local community members. 

The project provides vocational training and has allocated more than 1,000 microfinance loans for small business development. They have also helped modernize sanitation facilities and set up a farming school to share best practices.

We are not owners of the Earth, we are caretakers. That’s a big mindset difference. ”
— Dharsono Hartono, Southeast Asia regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. share twitter

“I get the most satisfaction when I go to the villages and see the farmers really appreciating what we do,” says Hartono. “It’s rewarding to see that they want to become even better. We’re building a restorative economy.”

The sustainability of humanity 

“When I started this 15 years ago, nobody was using the word impact, and they had just started using the word sustainable,” Hartono says. “We are so used to looking at profit as a benchmark of what we do, right? If you don’t make money, forget about it. But with conviction and a business model that you believe is impactful, I guarantee there will be a path of profitability because everybody’s moving there now.”

Over the past few years, the profile of The Katingan Mentaya Project has risen as Dharsono has taken on more environmental leadership roles such as the Deputy Head of Permanent Committee for Americas and International Economic Institution and Head of Permanent Committee for Climate Change Control for Indonesia Chamber of Commerce. He has also gotten involved in the Indonesia Global Compact Network and committed the project to implement the 10 principles of The United Nations Global Compact. His work now serves as a blueprint for other conservation efforts in Asia and globally, something he sees not as competition, but as the best outcome of his efforts. 

“I was given an opportunity to serve a purpose,” Hartono says. “I want to inspire others to do what we do; to see that there is a way of out what we’ve done the past 100 years.”

That’s why he does this work. “I’m not doing it for myself, but for my son, for my grandchildren. If we have a steward mindset, we have much brighter future,” Hartono explains.