Adivasi families living in northeastern Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district have employed a sustainable way of honey extraction that does not harm the bees.

The families have been collecting honey from the surrounding dense forests for ages. But so far, their method involved the use of fire, which killed the honeybees. This in turn likely had a harmful impact on the local biodiversity since bees play important role in pollination. The quality of honey was also low and the families would not get fair remuneration because of this. With the new method, the quality of the honey remains intact and they get higher remuneration.

The district, which is close to the state border with Chhattisgarh, has been impacted by the Naxalite insurgency for years. Villages here have been trained in and adopted this new technique of honey extraction as a way of livelihood and self-reliance.

“Villagers see benefits in the new technique,” said Gopal Paliwal, who devised the sustainable honey extraction technique. “The most important part is they are getting fair remuneration. Many people from rural areas are being trained in this technique. We expect more people from tribal areas will get involved.”

The honey extraction kit is a mix of simple items and tools such as two units of specialised suits, one bucket, one colander, two plastic boxes, two knives and one rope. The extraction technique does not use fire and hence does not impact the honeycomb or the bees inside. A person wearing a specialised suit climbs up to the honeycomb.

Bees in the part of the honeycomb where honey is stored, are removed by hand. Then, the honey-filled part, which constitutes about 20% of the honeycomb, is cut using a knife and collected. And the rest of the honeycomb is left as is. The gap created in the honeycomb is filled by the bees again over the next 15 days-20 days, which may allow another round of honey extraction.

Honey collector Chamru Hodi explains how honey processing machines operate. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar

“The number of honeycombs has come down by almost 45% since World War II, due to various factors such as environmental changes, urbanisation, human interference, use of pesticides and insecticides,” said Paliwal. “Our technique lets us take out honey without disturbing the comb, or honeybees or larvae. So, the honey obtained is ‘non-violent’.”

Many villagers collect honey using this kit and sell it at the Paliwal-run Centre for Bee Development, near Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram in Sevagram in the nearby Wardha district. The raw honey is scientifically tested, slightly heated to remove moisture and then bottled and sold.

“We market our honey as ‘non-violent’ honey,” Paliwal said. “Sustainably extracted honey helps protect the environment as well as ensures a sustained source of revenue in rural areas.”

Sustainable extraction

The experiment with sustainable honey extraction has shown positive and encouraging results, said Satish Gogulwar, health and social activist from Gadchiroli. “Even after paying Rs 200 per kg to collectors, the sustainably extracted honey after slight purification and packaging can fetch Rs 400 or more in retail,” he said. “The demand for pure forest honey is growing. As per our estimation, the Gadchiroli district alone has an annual potential of 1,000 quintal honey.”

Villagers in different parts of Gadchiroli are being given training in the sustainable honey extraction technique. “The process is safe as it rules out possibilities of honeybee bites,” said Gogulwar, who runs an NGO, Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi. “Moreover, it is bee-friendly and helps us get pure honey.” This year, the NGO processed 12 quintals of honey collected from Adivasis in Kurkheda village of Gadchiroli.

Salhe gram sabha, in Korchi area of Gadchiroli, collected 17 quintals of honey and paid Rs 200 per kg to the honey extractors. This was at least Rs 50 higher than the local market rates.

Salhe has regularly carried out collection and sale of Minor Forest Products effectively and now it has decided to sell this sustainably extracted honey under its brand. The gram sabha purchased 10 honey extraction kits and one honey processing unit.

“There are 10 groups of villagers, who have been given honey extraction kits,” said Ijamsai Katenge, a social activist from Salhe. “These groups collected 17 quintals in 2020 as well as in 2021, which was purchased by our gram sabha and upfront payment was made.”

A new ‘gotul’ built by the Salhe gram sabha using funds collected through auction of minor forest produce as well as government assistance. A ‘gotul’ is similar to a community centre in Adivasi villages. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar

Salhe gram sabha could not start honey purification and bottling processes because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But they managed to sell the honey to NGOs at Rs 250 per kg and the gram sabha did make a profit. The gram sabha is planning to apply for food certification and aims to bottle and market the “sustainable honey” in urban areas.

Win-win for all

Honey can be extracted during a 15 days-20 days window in May every year when it is mature. Its quality is also supposed to be the best during this time. As April begins, Adivasi communities in Gadchiroli set out in search of honeycombs in the forest.

In the traditional way, they would light a fire under honeycombs, which forced bees to flee. In the process, larvae and many bees died and the honey quality was reduced. Now many are switching to the sustainable extraction method.

Chandersai Katenge and Chamru Hodi are a part of one such group that received a honey kit from Salhe gram sabha. They said their group earned Rs 50,000 over 15 days of work this year.

“Earlier, we would use fire to scare bees away and pull the entire honeycomb down,” said Chandersai. “Under this new technique, we just remove a part of it. The special dress protects us from stinging bees. It is not bad to earn Rs 50,000 in just 15 days.”

Villagers in tribal-dominated Gadchiroli district said they were often at the mercy of local traders who would trick them and deny fair remuneration.

“Sometimes traders would pay us just Rs 80-Rs 90 for a kg,” said Hodi, a resident of Salhe village. “Now, it is quite satisfying to see that our own people (gram sabha) are buying our honey and other forest produce. The remuneration is good, sometimes higher than the standard market rates. The profit made by the gram sabha is being used for the development of infrastructure in our village and to create employment opportunities. It is quite satisfying.”

Katenge said, “Now people from villages such as Bodena, Zendepar, Kale, Navargaon, Jamnara are approaching Salhe gram sabha asking for kits and honey extraction technique.”

“Each honey extraction kit costs Rs 5,000,” Katenge said. “And the storage capacity is limited. So, we are urging these villages to create their own setup.”

Social activist Ijamsai Katenge explaining rights of the gram sabha in Zendepar village. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar

In order to bring confidence among villagers, there must be a system for the assured purchase of honey and other minor forest products these Adivasi communities collect, said researcher Ravi Chunarkar.

“Gram sabhas procuring and selling sustainable honey is a great initiative since it empowers them as well as prevents the destruction of already dwindling number of honeycombs,” said Chunarkar, who is working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on a forest governance and sustainable livelihood project. “If sustained procurement is maintained, villagers will be encouraged not to destroy honeycombs. At the same time, gram sabhas will become self-reliant.”

Opportunity for self-reliance

There are many MFPs like mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and wild fruits and vegetables, which can be sold by gram sabhas in semi-urban and urban markets. For example, efforts are going on to process the oil extracted from the fruits of mahua. This oil can be used for dietary consumption, medicinal purpose and even for manufacturing toilet soaps.

Minor forest produce like amalaki (Emblica officinalis), haritaki (Terminalia chebula) and bhibitaki (Belleric myrobalan) stored. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar

These Minor Forest Products can help the gram sabhas create a sustainable source of revenue, create local employment opportunities as well as facilitate self-governance through rightful access to natural resources under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and Forest Rights Act, 2006.

“Like honey, there are many products in the surrounding forest,” Gogulwar said. “But, setting up processing units and linkages to markets is a challenging job. Our experiment with honey extraction however has shown that gram sabhas can become self-dependent through sustainable use of forest produce. It can help reduce the rural population’s dependence on labour work and migration to earn a livelihood.”

The Tribal Development Department in Maharashtra has come up with schemes that aim to help the Adivasi community become self-dependent, said its deputy commissioner DS Kulmethe. “We assisted Adivasi communities in starting the sustainable honey extraction business. Efforts are going on to help them connect to markets. Similarly, we have plans for other minor forest products like mahua,” he said.

Some local activists, non-profits and researchers too, in the rural areas of Maharashtra, have been working on plans to boost the local economy through sustainable use of minor forest products. The aim is to make the rural, Adivasi population self-dependent so that they do not have to migrate for livelihood and the pristine forests are not destroyed to make way for industries.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.