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|Keepers of the Forest
|Eating Economically at the
|by Ruth Ann Smalley
|National Pollinator Week is
June 22–28. So, let’s talk about bees!
Last year’s discovery of “colony collapse disorder” raised awareness of
the honey bees’ plight, and raised important questions about
agriculture and the environment. “Bee
Mindful,” my May 2007 column (see
newsletter archives online), suggested ways to help both honeybees and
native bees, and recommended local honey from producers such as Lloyd
Spear and the Rulison family, who are not migratory beekeepers.
Fair Trade honey offers another way to contribute to the well-being of
farmers, bees and the environment. Honest Weight offers Zambezi Organic
Forest Honey in bulk. This product’s story is filled with hope and hard
work. Named for its location at the headwaters of the Zambezi River in
northwestern Zambia, this honey is helping to preserve biodiversity.
Here, Joanne Lauck’s comments on the “insect-human connection” are
“Mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects have been viewed by some as
heroes of the ecology because for decades they made tropical
rainforests almost uninhabitable for human beings, delaying the great
destruction of these forests that are home to an abundance of
The heroism of the wild bees of Zambia is of a more cooperative kind:
They are protectors of the forests together with the Lunda tribe, which
has “wildcrafted honey from wild forest bees for over 500 years” for
use as food, mead and medicine (www.zambezihoney.com).
Jenny Gelber and her husband, Keith, are co-owners of Zambezi Organic
Forest Honey of Oxford, Ohio. She described how their business “began
as a way to help prevent deforestation and has grown from there. Forest
honey is a ‘non-timber’ forest product, and is a viable alternative to
cutting trees down for timber or charcoal.” Organic Zambezi honey comes
from the Miombo forests, which “have one of the highest densities of
wild bee colonies in the world.” The 11,000-square-mile area
constitutes “one of the last remaining biologically diverse ecosystems
in the world” (www.zambezihoney.com).
As Jenny emphasized, it is also “one of the poorest regions in Zambia,”
where farmers typically make “less than $10 a month.” The forest is
under pressure from villagers and from foreign companies interested in
clear-cutting. “Zambia has one of the highest rates of deforestation”
in the world,
Jenny pointed out.
Jenny and Keith are in the third year of their partnership with the
producer group — a certified organic farmer collective formed eight
years ago — that has grown to 5,000 members. Trained in sustainable
agriculture, the Gelbers met in the Peace Corps and lived in Zambia for
four years. They got to know many of the farmers through their work on
a village-level sunflower seed oil project. There, they learned that
the group had been seeking a U.S. representative for their honey. “We
work directly with them on marketing,” Jenny said, “and we help them
identify grant funds, sources of training materials, resources and
other support.” Certified to sell 300 tons of honey a year, the
collective sells 40 to 60 tons in the United States and also exports to
Beekeepers registered with the collective receive free training and
education, as well as beekeeping supplies and mosquito netting.
According to the Zambezi website, “organic beekeeping raises average
monthly incomes by 100%” and “over 80% of the income … remains in the
local economy after 3 spending cycles.” Jenny added that “We also
donate a portion of profits for community development projects in
collective gives the best benefi ts to farmers,” Jenny asserted, and
“it doesn’t force farmers to sell exclusively to them.” It also works
to recruit and train women beekeepers, especially those from
female-headed households. Jenny found a “male-driven society” in Zambia
where the hard-working women, often called “the backbone of Africa,”
have few rights. Women are also limited by cultural constraints against
climbing and, since wild bee hives are up in trees, they must have a
climber’s help. Women are also being trained to use experimental Kenyan
top-bar hives that can be kept on the ground.
The work of the collective, and the Gelbers, is demonstrating notable
results. “Women are traditional sellers of charcoal, which involves
taking the biggest trees in the forest,” Jenny told me, so beekeeping
helps replace this more destructive source of income. Because members
of the collective “are paid, on average, 40% above market prices,”
beekeeping funds secondary businesses. “People are buying bicycles, and
going to towns for goods to start home businesses,” Jenny observes.
They are also producing beeswax candles, cooking oil and essential oils
“We’re trying to make a connection between buyers and producers,” Jenny
said. Recognizing the value of the “buy local” movement, she explained
that Zambian farmers cannot make a living simply by selling locally.
The Lunda people “have no electricity, no running water, no roads, and
do the honey harvest with bikes. Their carbon footprint is very low.”
And, as Zambia does not allow genetically modified crops, this is one
of the few places where truly organic honey is attainable. “If people
are buying Zambezi honey,” Jenny said, “they can feel confident they
are supporting farmers and helping preserve the environment.”
Why not join the Gelbers, and the beekeepers, as they help the bees
remain guardians of the forest?
|Gelber, Jenny. 2008.
Personal interview (April 29).
Lauck, Joanne. 2002. The Voice of the Infi nite in the Small:
Re-visioning the human-insect connection (Boston: Shambhala).
Zambezi Organic Forest Honey: (www.zambezihoney.com)
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