The Mexican honey cooperative finds sweet success in an unstable sector

May 14, 2024 | News

Honey is not all rolling hills and buzzing bees. Producers face a variety of challenges, from climate changes to fake honey. Here’s one co-op that is rising above the challenges

Seventy-three-year-old Vitaliano Cauich has worked with bees for more than half of his life – and he loves them. “Bees are important to me,” he says, “because I like taking care of them.”

“I feel so happy when I visit my apiary. I go there every day.” Sometimes, I even come here in my spare time. During bloom time, I only come to smell the flowers that the bees visit and I am happy when I see them working. It is a joy to see the bees in order.

Beekeeping has been a way to life for Cauich’s ancestors in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Mayan civilisations revered native Xunan Kab bees, carving them in stone at temples and including them as an integral part of their rituals.

Shared Interest is a UK social investor that has been providing finance to the beekeeping cooperative Educe for over five years. This link helps UK social investors connect with fair trade organizations in 45 countries. Open a share account today with PS100. Find out more

Even the beekeeping process shows the insects the greatest respect. In small wooden boxes, called cajas they are placed in areas with abundant flowers. They can forage and make honey at their own pace.

Making a living is not easy for a beekeeper in the 21st century, even though Mexico is the fifth largest honey exporter in the world. In 2005, a study even said that both native bees as well as traditional methods of production are on the verge of extinction.

Miguel Angel Munguia Gil is the general manager of Educe, a co-operative that focuses on high-quality production with traditional methods. It’s a challenge with many layers.

Vitaliano Cahuich shows a bottle of honey that he produces through Educe. Image: Shared interest

He rattles off a list of problems: “Pressure on the land, extreme price fluctuations, adulterated honeys on the world market, excessive rain or drought, increased production cost, the threat from organised crime and emigration …”.

Climate change is a major concern for producers such as Cauich. The peninsula has seen dramatic changes in the last few decades. Researchers have noticed an increase of extreme weather events such as droughts, hurricanes, and excessive rain.

Gil explains that in the past there was a distinct period of time when plants and trees bloomed. “Today, flowers that were supposed to bloom in February aren’t opening until June or not at all. In this case, there is no nectar. “And then those that were supposed open later, open earlier or not at all.”

Miguel Angel Munguia Gil is a representative of Educe. Image: Shared Interest

A survey 2023 by the European Commission revealed that all honey products tested from UK supermarket shelves were pumped up with sugar syrup. The test failed almost half of the products across the continent. Netflix’s Rotten docuseries, which explored the darker side of the food supply chain, focused on this.

Gil says that this challenge is “something we must fight hard against”, as adulterated goods have a direct effect on prices, which are already volatile. Co-operatives such as his can help.

Educe was founded in 1997 and brings together 800 beekeepers working within 40 co-operatives. By working together, they can negotiate better prices for their products without needing an intermediary. As well, certification to organic and Fairtrade standards justify higher price points.

Maria Colli is a beekeeper that has worked for Educe for the past four years. Image: Shared interest

Maria Colli is a beekeeper and has been working with Educe for the past four years. She says that being a member of Educe has helped her as well as her community. “The price was the main reason I was interested in Educe. She explains, “It’s a good deal for us.” But it’s more than just cash.

“The other thing they do is give us workshops about gender and the environment. These workshops have opened our eyes,” says she. “This is a small village with quite a bit of machoism.” It’s a great pleasure to have them. We used to be embarrassed when we spoke up or voiced our opinions, but no longer.”

The price was my motivation. They also give us workshops about gender and the environment.

Colli also mentions that it has helped in diversifying the products: she has since expanded into honey throat sweets as well as skin creams and cough candy.

The co-operative works with Shared Interest a cooperative of ethical investors that provides capital at fair rates to smallholders. The loans we provide Educe allow them to pre-finance harvests and pay beekeepers for their honey throughout the year. Patricia Alexander, Shared Interest managing director.

The cooperative then sells the product to customers around the globe. Any surplus profits will be returned to the farmers to support investment, training and development.

Andres Munguia, Educe’s Treasurer, says that it is working. “We’re seeing an improvement in the income of the beekeepers,” says he. “Many people do not have to migrate when they can earn a decent living here. They can stay, and the families can remain together in their community.”

Andres Munguia Zarco, Educe. The organisation brings 800 beekeepers together from 40 co-operatives. Image: Shared interest

Co-operatives such as Educe have played a major role in preventing from becoming a reality. For beekeepers such as Jorge Alberto Chan Lopez it allows them to focus on what’s important to them: looking after the bees.

He says that “we try to keep them in the best condition possible, so they can be cared for and not mistreated,” because these insects contribute to our environment, nature, and life.

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