Search
Close this search box.

Saving the ecosystem while creating

livelihoods

Miriam Pérez, 52, suits up slowly and carefully, making sure every inch of skin is covered. She fires up a stainless steel smokepot to give herself another layer of protection. The honeybees at the top of the steep hill are not her enemies, but they can be aggressive if riled.

“The smoke makes them a little dizzy,” Pérez says. “When you apply the smoke, they may try to attack or sting, but they get confused. So this helps control them and reduces the risks inherent to beekeeping.”

Bees play a key role in mitigating climate change through pollination, as they transfer grains of pollen from one plant to another, enabling fertilization and the production of seeds. But around the world, bee populations have been declining in recent decades for a number of reasons, including habitat loss, intensive farming practices, changes in weather patterns, and the excessive use of pesticides.

In La Reforma municipality of San Marcos department, CARE’s Conservation and Restoration of Forest Landscapes project is working with 10 families to bolster the honeybee population not only to help the environment but also to generate extra income for struggling workers. Coffee and rubber are the primary exports in this area, and laborers may work 10 hours a day in the hot sun to earn 50 quetzales – less than US$7.

“There is a lack of opportunity in general in that area,” says Roberto Chuc, FCA project coordinator for CARE Guatemala. “And there’s a huge gap between the poor and the rich.”

The beekeeping enterprise is part of a 10-year, multipronged climate justice initiative funded by the Conservation Fund for Tropical Forests -FCA-, a collaboration between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments to restore tropical forests and bolster livelihood opportunities in indigenous and marginalized communities. In this particular area, CARE has been implementing projects for about a year and a half, reaching a total of 3,750 people – 1,768 women and 1,982 men.

In addition to beekeeping, projects have ranged from community reforestation to the installation of energy-saving stoves that use half the wood as before.

The bees themselves are an inspirational metaphor, as they represent a relatively perfect community where everybody contributes. They are industrious and harmonious, and they have a common goal. In addition to honey, they produce five products that are used in various ways for nutritional and medicinal purposes – pollen, royal jelly, beeswax and propolis.

In Miriam Pérez’s agrarian community of La Fe, 10 families contribute to the upkeep of 20 boxes set up to house beehives. Deyvid Velásquez, an climate change specialist for CARE Guatemala, trained the families and provides ongoing support to ensure the bees are thriving.

After three months, we have been able to harvest twice,” Velásquez says. “The honey is very dark, very pure, because it’s organically managed. There are no chemicals. That is the essence of the honey here.

“This project is about building capacities and strengthening resilience of this group of women,” he adds. “We are also creating business plans for them so they can place their products in the market. They have a very high-quality product, which will be sold in other areas of the country – and if possible – exported.”

At least once a week, Pérez walks or takes a tuk-tuk to check on the hives about 3 kilometers from her home and sundry shop, where La Fe honey – proudly branded with the community’s name – is prominently displayed.

 “I didn’t know anything about beekeeping,” she says. “Now I really enjoy it. I go out there by myself and talk to the bees. When I arrive, I say, ‘Hello, my lovelies. I’m here now.’ I never imagined I would be doing this. We are very poor, and this really helps all the families here.”

The 10 families share the duties of maintaining the hives, extracting and bottling the honey, and marketing their product. A small bottle sells for 20 quetzals (US$2.50), and a large bottle sells for 40 quetzals.

CARE has other climate justice projects in this area, including aquaculture and mushroom production enterprises. “Everything is tied to the environment,” Velásquez says. “We teach them how to take good care of water resources, for example, and how to use household refuse to grow edible mushrooms. Each project has a special goal, connected with ecosystems and forests.”

In this community, the project began with 10 white boxes placed in an open area in the forest that gets just enough sunlight and just enough shade, is surrounded by flowering plants and trees, and has a nearby water source. The boxes are positioned so that bees awaken as soon as the sun comes up, so they can begin searching for food early. Each box contains 10 frames, where the bees build their honeycombs. Within about 20 days, the honey is ready to harvest.

 All 10 participating families help ensure the bees are well-fed, especially in the winter, and keep ants from invading the hives. Then they all play a role in extracting the honey, bottling it, and selling it. After calculating expenses, the net profits are divided evenly among the families.

Pérez, a single mother, is the leader of the group and the biggest cheerleader for beekeeping as an income-generating, environmentally responsible enterprise. Her only child, a grown son, emigrated to the U.S. years ago in search of livelihood opportunities.

“A lot of women don’t want to do this work because they’re afraid – or they’re allergic to the stings,” Pérez says. “You have to have a passion for the bees. I really love them. And I love doing this. I feel proud knowing how to do this – getting the honey and the benefits for the families. I never dreamed that I would be working in this. But look where I am now.”

People in this community may not use the term “climate change” in their day-to-day routines, but they see it every day. Years ago, it rained more. Or it rained in May. Now they have to wait until June or July. They see all the changes, Velásquez says. And they see the benefits of climate change adaptation as well.

“We are contributing to conserve the native ecosystems while producing an economic resource for the community,” Velásquez says. “This is why it is important to understand the relationship between the bees, the ecosystems where they live, and the people that also live there.

“If we can all live together and take care of one another, then this can be sustainable for a long time.”