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Honey in Chajul

Written and Photographed By Adam Fishbein

With the price of green coffee treacherously low, coffee farmers from the Ixil region of Guatemala are in desperate need of additional sources of income to supplement their income from coffee. Practices such as beekeeping and the production and sale of honey provide this much needed income so farmers can stay at home with their families and their farms.

The Coffee Trust works with the fair trade, organic honey cooperative CopiChajulense and over 140 beekeepers who are also coffee producers in San Gaspar Chajul, in Quiché, Guatemala. The Coffee Trust has helped these producers improve their honey production, produce great quality honey, and export that honey to Europe and now the United States.

Bees in Chajul are Africanized bees. These bees are not always the most docile of creatures, and because of this, beehives are kept far from the villages and the homes of farmers. Beekeepers must often walk long distances up mountains and through trees and brambles in order to reach their hives. While some of these paths are clear, bushwhacking is often part of the journey.

Trekking through thick brush to get to the hives.

Trekking through thick brush to get to the hives.

Joking around before the work begins.

Joking around before the work begins.

Upon arriving at the hives, beekeepers don their protective gear. While a few have full bee suits, most have just a net, which they place over their hat or hood, and thick clothing such as sweatpants and sweatshirts. At times beekeepers will work in two or three layers of clothing in order to protect themselves from bees.

Preparing the fumador.

Preparing the fumador.

Fumadores provide smoke during hive maintenance. A small piece of wood is lit on fire and placed at the bottom of the fumador. Dried corn cobs are then placed on top and slowly burn creating smoke. To bees, the smoke suggests a forest fire, so the bees gather around the queen to protect her, minimizing the number of bees protecting the hive. The smoke makes the task of adjusting and checking up on hives easier and safer.

A beekeeping training in full swing.

A beekeeping training in full swing.

In order to learn about beekeeping, coffee farmers are trained by technicians and promoters who teach the proper beekeeping techniques. The training process is called Campesino a Campesino, or farmer to farmer. It is a peer to peer training process in which the technicians and promoters are also local beekeepers from the area.

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The trainings occur over months, and each session covers a different subject. In between sessions promoters and technicians will check up on how the farmers are doing, and the status of their hives. The training process is one of self empowerment, as learning from their peers beekeepers experience the mentality of,”if he can do it so can I.”

Magdaleno looks for the queen bee.

Magdaleno looks for the queen bee.

Magdaleno is an organic beekeeping technician for CopiChajulense—the beekpeeing cooperative in San Gaspar Chajul, Guatemala. His job is to train and monitor other beekeepers.The precision and skill with which Magdaleno works is awestriking. His gloveless hands, often covered in bees, are gentle yet meticulous as they open and comb through hives.

Labeled jugs used to transport honey.

Labeled jugs used to transport honey.

Honey from over 140 beekeepers is bought to a processing plant. The honey from all these beekeepers is unheated and unfiltered and blended together resulting in raw unfiltered honey ready to be barreled and sold.

A young man helps guide the truck as it backs up to the honey processing plant.

A young man helps guide the truck as it backs up to the honey processing plant.

When it comes time to ship the barrels out for sale, a truck is brought down a treacherous dirt road to the plant. The truck must back up a few hundred meters before the barrels can be loaded on.

Pushing the barrels onto the truck.

Pushing the barrels onto the truck.

Barrels are loaded by hand, one by one, onto the truck. Each barrel is 60 gallons, and generally weighs around 700 pounds. The young men who load up the truck make this job look easy, quickly loading one barrel after another, not stopping till the truck is fully loaded.

The truck is prepared for loading and transportation.

The truck is prepared for loading and transportation.

A tarp is placed over the truck in order to protect the barrels on their long journey from the highlands of Guatemala down to the coast where they are placed on a ship exported out of the country.

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In 2019, Copichajulense exported 2 containers (120-140 barrels) of honey to Germany. 12 more barrels currently await export to the United States. The hope is that in the coming years honey production will increase and be sold in multiple countries around the world.

If you are interested in supporting coffee farmers and projects such as the Beekeeping and Honey project please visit our How You Can Help page.