The moon is still hanging full above the Southern Mexican city of Chilón when Victor Manuel Lopez Jimenez unlocks the cooperative’s heavy metal door to check the colmenas, or hives in English. By seven in the morning other co-op members begin to dot the area, working on soap or coffee packaging. That’s around the same time Lopez Jimenez loads up his truck and drives to San Cristobal De Las Casas, hoping to sell a few jars of small-batch honey.
This is what Lopez Jimenez has always known. He’s a third-generation beekeeper from a local Tseltal Mayan community, and his whole lineage has raised bees. He’s raising his own three kids to get into the same work. He cares a lot about this life.
“We don’t have a good salary, but we’re glad to be here.”
“We don’t have a good salary, but we’re glad to be here,” Lopez Jimenez said. “My heart is with the producers and the honey.”
He came to the local cooperative Yomol A’tel to sharpen his beekeeping skills and learn about agroecology and sustainable farming practices. He then found the cooperative a place where he could apply his apiary skills, managing their honey production and sales.
Lopez Jimenez has a twin challenge. He wants to convince farmers who sell to the cooperative to use organic practices. He also wants consumers of their honey to care. Organic honey can fetch a higher price, but farmers in the region will need to implement a new biodiversity-friendly style of producing honey. Buyers will need to understand what they are paying for.
Sweet and light
Chiapas is the Southernmost state of Mexico’s 32 states. It’s full of hills and mountains, unnamed to many of the Indigenous folks but are pieces of what the Mexican government calls the Sierra Madre de Chiapas which ranges through 1,206 named mountains, accompanied by great ravines and rivers. It’s like Mexico’s Middle Earth.
Communities, the regionally-appropriate term that may translate to Global North imaginations of “villages,” rely on these bountiful natural areas. Growing their own food is the norm; growing something additional to sell for money is also expected. The coffee drunk after waking up, prepared in big pots over open flames, is grown in folks’ backyards, for instance.
Lopez Jimenez is one of seven siblings in a family from the Chiviltic community. He is financially responsible for his parents, and has a wife plus three kids of his own. He doesn’t have a job title, but is the cooperative’s go-to honey biodiversity expert. He works on a team of three who handle everything from collection to production to sales. He is nearly 30-years-old. Some Sundays he is known to sing in the choir at the Catholic church.
“The bottle of honey represents the community…one kilo of honey is the work of many bees.”
As a kid, he entered “the honey school” with Yomol A’tel to strengthen and formalize his ancestral knowledge. Working with cooperatives is much more common in this agricultural area of Mexico than it is in, say, the United States. Picture a non-hierarchical set of businesses rather than an upscale grocery store. The “schools” the cooperative offers are ways for young people to get job training and up-to-date information on the fields the cooperative covers in its projects: coffee, microfinance, workers’ rights, soap and honey. The bee-centric arm is called Chabtic, the Tseltal word for honey.
“The bottle of honey represents the community,” Lopez Jimenez said. “One kilo of honey is the work of many bees.”
Lopez Jimenez says that honey was actually selling well during COVID. According to the cooperative, honey made up for 82 percent of sales during 2020. As coffee is typically the majority of sales, this was an inversion of sorts. Lots of buyers of their honey were Mexicans who did not trust the national health care plan. Natural alternatives, including honey, were in mass demand.
“Honey is like medicine” Lopez Jimenez said. “We doubled our numbers.”
The cooperative used the money for production and to improve the pay for producers. They bought new labels, shipping boxes, and better jars. They also began paying expenses for things like travel and food. Lopez Jimenez said it became a situation where as much as they could produce, they could sell.
“I believe that we have to have hope for the workers,” Lopez Jimenez said. “To have a higher price for what we produce. We have to keep looking for what we want. This is it. The investments for their families, to have better work in coffee and better production also – better sales.”
He would like to see the market respond in a fair way. He says his cooperative cultivates honey as an attempt to invest in their families the way someone might send their kid to college.
Competitive and costly
Coyotes are not just animals in the Northern Jungle. It’s a term that, locally, refers to independent buyers and sellers of commodity goods. That includes honey. Locals are able to get better prices since coyotes are often selling to the big buyers.
“Sometimes the coyote buys at a high price, and we can’t compete with that,” Lopez Jimenez said. “The workers get upset because, even for organic, we aren’t getting a good price [with the cooperative].”
“It’s hard to convince them not to use any chemicals…because it’s a lot of manual, hard work.”
The Yomol A’tel cooperative buys all kinds of honey from its members, low grade and the organic stuff that Lopez Jimenez is promoting. It’s complicated – just because he encourages the farmers to use his modern practices doesn’t mean the members of the cooperative will listen to him. He’s at an advantage since he himself is indigenous, but learning new tricks is hard for any old dog.
“It’s difficult to talk about agroecology. It’s hard to convince them not to use any chemicals…because it’s a lot of manual, hard work,” Lopez Jimenez said. “The price of coffee and honey is so low that it isn’t worth all the work that they do.”
The low prices explains Yomol A’tel and Chabtic’s interest in selling as much honey as they can. It also explains his interest in promoting higher quality organic honey.
In 2019 Business Insider reported that Mānuka honey, just one varietal of honey, can sell for up to $99 a gram. As told to Yahoo! Life, Kyle Barnholt, an executive at the honey company Manuka Health said in 2020 that “exports of New Zealand Mānuka Honey to North America have tripled over the past three years.” While Mānuka is only produced in New Zealand, it’s just one part of the single origin, specialty market that Chabtic sells into. It’s more popular than ever.
Co-director Alejandro Rodriguez is as hungry for this growth as can be, knowing the numbers all too well. COVID was as bad for the co-op as it gets.
“There was an economic effect,” Rodriguez said. “It impacted us directly because our customers are in the cities and in the United States, too. All the cities closed, and the economy stopped, but activity here didn’t stop.”
The cooperative has looked to get involved with Amazon, for example. For many in the city and the communities, often in the hinterlands of the selva norte or northern jungle, there’s a lot of curiosity around e-commerce. Lopez Jimenez just wants consumers from northern Mexico to northern Europe to understand what goes into producing organic, artisan honey. Consumers don’t always get how important operations like these are in comparison to big players like Nestle or Kroger.
“We want to spread all this information so they consume not just for taste, but that they know about the work in the communities,” Lopez Jimenez said. “That we are Tseltales. That we work hard to send honey.”
Futures and forecasts
Lopez Jimenez wrings his hands as community members nap and scowl. He is explaining to cooperative members the advantages of diversifying the flowers in their agricultural fields. He is telling them the bees like the variety.
“We want better production to have more hives,” Lopez Jimenez said.
One by one members of the community walked out of the small wooden church, ignoring his calls to action. Afternoon sun shone off of the coffee plants lining the road, enormous turkeys walking between the shrubs. Only 44 percent of the cooperative’s members came to their meetings this year.
But Lopez Jimenez maintains optimism. The Jesuit mission in the city works closely with Yomol A’tel to increase their customer base. Eduardo “Lalo” Hernandez, a thoughtful and traveled member of the cooperative, handles social media. He’s shown loads of the members what is possible for Yomol A’tel. The producers get giddy at the thought.
“The future that we want is for the kids of producers don’t have to produce for thirty years,” Lopez Jimenez said. “They can work here and find better lives in the cooperative.”
Rodriguez is optimistic, too, that the slump will end. Coffee sales accounted for just 46 percent of income last year, a great drop in comparison to past years’ returns. Chiapas is one of the worlds’ best specialty coffee regions. Rodriguez is wise to be hopeful – people will keep drinking coffee.
But what about honey? And what about these sustainable practices that Lopez Jimenez and his colleagues preach? Amina Harris, the director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis, is a staunch supporter of these practices as a path forward. She founded the center and has been working in honey for 43 years. In Woodland, California she runs what is called “The Hive,” a climate controlled warehouse with a staff of 11 people.
Now she’s putting together a team to describe the United States regional varietals of honey. This is after she’s become known for developing the UC Davis Honey Aroma and flavor Wheel. There is a world waiting for craft, specialty honey producers like the folks in Chilón.
Without them, it’s hard to know what will happen to the communities, their wide-open fields and rivers at an increasing threat of fire and plague.
If the workers can come together and adopt these techniques, if they can remember those three kids of Lopez Jimenez and the future they might prepare for them, it might not be too late. The bees are buzzing, still, after all.