Friday, December 31, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 8, Part 1 - Visit to a Family's Home

This is the nineteenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our eighth day - our last day with the Zapatistas - we visited a family's home to see their beehive. Except, I immediately spotted a few chocolate trees and went off wandering to check out what else they had...

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

If you've read my last few diaries, you know that the group I traveled with was in Chiapas to train the kids and teachers at a secondary school to keep two species of native, stingless bees that produce tasty and medicinal honey. The bees, of the genera Melipona and Trigona, are threatened due to habitat loss from deforestation, and the Mayan tradition of keeping them and using their honey is suffering as a result.

Thus, on our very last day, we loaded our entire group and all of our stuff into the car, along with several students who would go with us to see an actual Melipona hive in a nearby family's garden. At this point, we had about 10 people crammed into a small car along with our luggage. Even still, a few people did not fit and they stayed behind to wait for a ride of some sort (hitchhiking, I assume).

Despite the excitement of going to see a real Melipona hive, the day started out on a rather somber note as everyone in the group except for me went to visit - possibly for the last time - a dear friend of theirs who was dying of cancer. He was suffering from a great deal of pain and terrified that he only had a few days worth of morphine left. Our group gave him money for more morphine, and, later in the day, stopped to buy him a walker. This man was currently using an experimental drug from a doctor who had trained in Cuba, and everyone hoped that it might do some good.

The home we visited was in a neighborhood that had a market going on that day. Everything was for sale, from food to clothes to random hardware. I bought a tortilla press for 130 pesos. Later, I learned that I was likely ripped off, and not just because I'm a Gringo. At first, we all wondered aloud how a market might possibly succeed in such a remote neighborhood. Then we found out that the government was handing out welfare money nearby, and the market was set out - with prices twice what they should be - hoping to get business from the people who had just received their welfare money.

The roads were not passable so we had to walk a few blocks to get to the home we were visiting. The family there had 14 children. The family, 18 people in all, in a small home, the front of which was built to serve as a small store where they were selling, among other things, fresh baked bread. Next to the small building where they slept was another small building that served as a kitchen, with a counter for cutting, a wood fire stove, and a real luxury - an electric corn grinder. In yet another room they had a clay oven.

The home, where 18 people lived

Inside the kitchen

Corn in the kitchen

The oven

We visited with the older children in the family while the younger kids tagged along. Our first stop was the Melipona hive. It looked exactly as we had been told it would, and exactly like the pictures of Melipona hives I had seen. In an area that looked like honeycomb, the bees stored their brood (larvae). However, the honey was stored in little "honeypots" that were each about the size of the top joint of your thumb. I took a picture or three, and then wandered off to check out what else the family was growing.

The hive

Inside the hive. Mostly, these are honeypots, with some cells containing brood on top

Door to the hive, with a guard bee in it

In the small area where we were, I observed at least:
  • 10 pigs and 6 piglets
  • 10 or so turkeys, plus baby poults
  • 10 or so chickens, plus chicks
  • 10 or so Muscovy ducks, plus ducklings
  • Citrus trees
  • 3 coconut palms
  • LOTS of cacao
  • Banana trees
  • Sugarcane
  • Pineapple
  • Tamarind
  • Noni
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Pinenuts
  • Breadfruit
  • Coffee

Immediately next to the area with the melipona hive, there was a grove of cacao trees, each with many pods on them. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the cacao trees suffered a disease that was rotting the pods before they could be harvested. And while the cacao trees weren't entirely shaded, there was some shade provided by a few taller trees, such as a breadfruit tree.

Cacao trees

Cacao pods, with dark brown spots from disease

Breadfruit tree, shading the cacao trees below it

When I asked one of the older sons of the family, he told me that the cacao was primarily for their own consumption, particularly because of the disease that was causing reduced harvests. He said he got about 10 to 15 kilos of cacao per harvest. If this is the weight of the beans as they come off the trees (and I'm not sure), then their total weight after fermentation and drying would only be about 3 to 5 kilos.

From there, I began exploring other trees, trying to count how many they had with each. But there was no way to count, since the property was large and I had no idea where it started or ended. I later asked the son who did most of the farmwork about their property and he told me that they held 20 hectares about an hour's walk away, and that's where they grew their corn, squash, and beans.

Citrus fruit

Coconut palm


Several coffee trees


Tamarind tree

After I had gone about surveying the food-producing trees, I came to an area where they were drying seeds, beans, and peppers, showing some other foods the family produces.

A table, made with living trees, where they were drying seeds, beans, and peppers

Seeds drying. The white are squash, the brown are cacao, and the dark ones are pine nuts



And then I checked out the livestock...

Pig eating bean pods (after the beans were removed)


A turkey joins the pigs for a snack

Baby chicks


And I took a few other pictures of some details I found interesting - the tap for running water, the firewood drying, a beautiful flower, and the ubiquitous soda bottles that seem to have invaded every corner of the earth.

This family has running water

Firewood, drying - and in the back they are also drying palm fronds for thatch.

No comment.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: The New Peasantries

The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg came to me highly recommended by a friend I respect a lot. And it lived up to all of my expectations... but I have one major complaint. In some places this book is so difficult to read, I have no idea what the heck it's even saying. That will go on for a half a page or a page, and then I'll pick up what the author's talking about for a bit and agree wholeheartedly with him about it, and then lose him again a page or two later. But other than that, it's a tremendously important book that has helped me better understand what I've observed both at home and abroad. In particular, it's an interesting framework to view the food safety bill debate through, although my primary purpose for reading this book was to help me understand foreign agricultural aid and the lives of subsistence farmers, primarily in the Global South.

Van der Ploeg begins by defining what he means by a peasant. In his definition, a peasant is a very modern identity (although obviously peasants have existed for much of human history) and peasants are not even necessarily poor. I realized as I was reading that some of the people whose farms I've visited in the United States are peasants, and often they have extremely successful farms. As you read through the quotes and examples below, you'll begin to understand where any idea you have that being a peasant involves backwardness might have come from... any why those ideas are wrong.

In his words (and all the emphasis is his):

Central to the peasant condition, then, is the struggle for autonomy that takes place in a context characterized by dependency relations, marginalization, and deprivation. It aims at and materializes as the creation and development of a self-controlled and self-managed resource base, which in turn allows for those forms of co-production of man and living nature that interact with the market, allow for survival and for future prospects and feed back into and strengthen the resources base, improve the process of co-production, enlarge autonomy, and, thus, reduce dependency. Depending upon the particularities of the prevailing socioeconomic conjuncture, both survival and the development of one's own resource base might be strengthened through engagement in other non-agrarian activities. Finally, patterns of cooperation are present which regulate and strengthen those interrelations. p. 23

Clear as mud? I'll explain.

Peasants are defined most of all by their drive for autonomy and their avoidance of the market when possible. That doesn't mean that peasants never interact with the market, but they certainly interact with it less than "entrepreneurial farms" and what van der Ploeg calls "capitalist farms." A peasant is more likely to use family labor instead of employing outside labor than the other two types of farms. A peasant may work off the farm, get some money, and buy new equipment for the farm, but at that point they own the equipment - they did not finance its purchase with a loan - and thus they do not need to achieve a certain yield each subsequent season in order to pay down the loan. A peasant is more likely to grow feed for his or her animals and to use manure instead of commercial fertilizer, as these practices avoid purchasing inputs on the market. And peasants often barter, without using money in their transactions. You've got a strong son who is available during part of the year when I need help, and I've got a piece of a equipment you need to borrow. So we trade.

Co-production, as defined by van der Ploeg, is "the ongoing interaction and mutual transformation of man and living nature." (p. 24) The way people live and farm is shaped by nature, but at the same time, nature is shaped by people and their activities. And hopefully this occurs in a mutually beneficial way. Consider, for example, rotational grazing. By managing when and where livestock graze, the farmer improves the land and raises healthy livestock to eat and to sell. But it's nature that determines when and where the farmer moves the livestock in their rotations, as the farmer cannot force nature to grow the grass back quicker.

By slowly improving the quality and productivity of the key resources - land, animals, crops, buildings, irrigation, infrastructure, knowledge, etc. - and by means of a meticulous fine-tuning of the process of production and a continuous re-patterning of relations with the outside world, peasants strive for and eventually obtain the means of enlarging their autonomy and improving the resource base of their farm units. - p. 25

He also notes that the end products are not the only outcomes of the peasant mode of farming. If you consider my chickens, for example, a "capitalist farm" (i.e. factory egg operation) would only get eggs from the chickens. I'll get eggs from my girls but I'll also get pest control, waste product removal, fertilizer, and enjoyment from them. I won't be able to sell these things, most likely, but they will improve my operation as a whole, and I'll have better soil to grow my plants in as a result.

The peasant condition, according to van der Ploeg, is not absolute. There are degrees of peasantization. These classifications are fluid, as sometimes peasants will become entrepreneurial farms or capitalist farms, and sometimes entrepreneurial farms will experience a "repeasantization." Repeasantization occurs both when entrepreneurial farmers make the shift to peasant farming, or when peasants move deeper into peasant practices. He also describes "deactivation," which means leaving agriculture altogether (by selling your land to a real estate developer, for example).

In this era of globalization, van der Ploeg shows several examples of how peasant farms are doing better than entrepreneurial farms. Many of his examples come from Europe, which he says has recently undergone a massive repeasantization. For me, the best example I've observed here in the U.S. is in dairy. With the crisis in dairy pricing over the past few years, the dairy farmers who rely on the most external inputs (grain, fertilizer, fuel) have had a hard time when prices went up dramatically, and a harder time still when the price paid to dairy farmers for milk went down. During this time, the price paid by consumers for milk did not plummet like the price paid to farmers did. A farmer I met who had set up their own processing plant to pasteurize and bottle their own milk survived, as did another farmer I met who made all of her milk into ice cream and sold it at a roadside stand. Both of these farmers grazed their cattle on grass and thus had no need to buy grain. (One commented that she used to supplement the cows' feed with grain but these days it wasn't worth the money.) They had relatively small herds, and they did not have Holstein cows (the dairy breed you see on all the large farms). The farmer I met who had the largest dairy, an "entrepreneurial farm," who had very high tech equipment, fed his cows grain, and hired Mexicans to milk the cows was struggling and losing money.

Van der Ploeg has a section that shows why Green Revolution technology, such as high yielding varieties and breeds, are inappropriate for the peasant mode of farming. He says:

Entering dependency relations, even if this might help to construct something that looks impressive, macho, and powerful, is deeply distrusted. And related to this is a mistrust of immediacy and its inherent temptations. Immediacy is suspect in nearly all peasant cultures, whether in the developing world or highly developed countries. Immediacy means that things must be taken at face value. In the peasant world, though, questions are continually asked about what underlies immediate appearances. Does a high-yielding cow indicate highly successful breeding strategies and competencies within the farm and keenly maintained networks with other farmers who are providing 'new blood'? Or is it about the costly acquisition of cattle bred elsewhere, high input levels of expensive concentrates, high veterinarian expenses and short longevity? p. 27

Another important term van der Ploeg uses repeatedly is Empire, which he defines as follows:

The other highly centralized pattern is constituted by large food processing and trading companies that increasingly operate on a world scale. Throughout the book, I refer to this pattern as Empire. Empire is understood here as a mode of ordering that tends to become dominant. At the same time, Empire is embodied in a wide range of specific expressions: agribusiness groups, large retailers, state apparatuses, but also in laws, scientific models, technologies, etc. Together these expressions - p. 3-4

'Artificialization' versus co-production

Here's a passage I found significant:

Co-production requires - and equally results in - a specifically ordered type of knowledge, referred to in the French tradition as savoir faire paysan (Lacroix, 1981; Darre, 1985) or art de la localite (Mendras, 1967, 1970). Respect and admiration for, and patience with, living nature are mostly an integral part of such knowledge (Kessel, 1990).

Entrepreneurial farming differs from this is several respects. Although 'nature' remains an unavoidable ingredient (it composts the required 'raw material'), development in the entrepreneurial mode is focused on increasingly reducing its presence. 'Nature' is too capricious - it excludes standardization of the labour process and thus becomes a hindrance to accelerated scale increase. It also limits (or retards) increase in productivity. Therefore, the presence of nature within the agricultural production process is reduced and that which remains is increasingly 'rebuilt' through an all-ebracing process of 'artificialization' (Altieri, 1990). - p. 114-115

He follows this with a few sentences that I find worthy of sharing: "In the entrepreneurial pattern, the processes of agricultural production are progressively disconnected from nature and the ecosystems in which they are located." (p. 115) and "Partly as an effect of the 'artificialization' of the agricultural process of production, the entrepreneurial mode of farming is characterized by an elevated degree of externalization - that is, many subtasks of a once integral process of production and labour are shifted towards and taken over by external institutions and market agencies. Once this occurs, new dependency relations are created between these institutes and agencies and the farms involved." (p. 115)

Entrepreneurship vs. craftsmanship

On the following page, he discusses the peasant appreciation for "craftsmanship." He then notes:

The entrepreneurial mode of farming represents a strong contrast in this respect. Here, entrepreneurship becomes the central capacity - that is, the capacity to pattern the labour and production processes according to market relations and prospects becomes decisive. Whereas within the framework of craftsmanship internal indicators are normative (e.g. 'What, regarding the behaviour and history of a particular cow, is the ration that best fits her'?), external indicators become the main beacons within the framework of entrepreneurship ('Given the relations between the price of milk and the costs of different feed ingredients, what is the best ration?'). Based on these external indicators, day-to-day farm operations are constantly modified, at least in so far as entrepreneurial practices are concerned. Peasants would hesitate or be unwilling to do this: 'By doing so you'll only ruin your cows; they need what best suits them and they need continuity as well.' - p. 116-117

One great line by van der Ploeg is that "globalization eats its 'own children' (the entrepreneurs)" - which he follows up by saying that "globalization and its consequences can only be responded to in a resilient and sustainable way through peasant modes of farming." (p. 149)

He elaborates on Europe's repeasantization (which he says is taking place alongside industrialization and deactivation). He describes this repeasantization by citing more farmers diversifying their farms and doing on-farm processing or selling to local consumers, "farming more economically," "regrounding farming upon nature" (what we might call farming more ecologically), "improving efficiency of I/O conversion" (input to output conversion), and "new forms of local cooperation." He notes:

Farming economically... was perceived by many as a step backward, especially when combined with a regrounding of farming upon natural resources. And within the modernization paradigm, which centres on the embodiment of scientific progress in industrial inputs and new technologies for farming, such a combination would be seen as an outrage. Pluriactivity [working off the farm] was likewise assumed to be something for the periphery; and new forms of local cooperation were thought to be unnecessary as long as the state and key farmers' unions ordered the sector properly... Improving the efficiency of farming... was understood to be the exclusive role of science and associated expert systems. p. 154

The examples van der Ploeg gives are quite wonderful, and they help make sense of some of the abstract explanations here. In one, he talks about a European dairy giant that went bust because it was entirely built on debt. Of course, he classifies this dairy giant as "Empire" and explains at length its usefulness, since all it really did was take resources that already existed and pattern them in such a way to profit off of them. The farmers lost out, since they were not paid terribly well, and consumers did too, since they were sold an inferior product at inflated prices. Some of the schemes to sell inferior milk products are quite remarkable, and none more so than the product Italian newspapers called "simil-latte." This was sold for years as UHT (ultra heat treated) milk but it was actually "imported massive quantities of waste products, among them milk that had passed its durability and milk powder to be used for animal feed, etc." (p. 108) This stuff was not only microfiltrated, it was also treated with ammonia. Fortunately, it seems that the Italians actually arrested the criminals behind this one. But, while this is an extreme, there are plenty of other examples given (and no doubt you can name a zillion yourself) of foods that are entirely disconnected from time and place by Empire, so that it doesn't matter where or when something is produced anymore, so long as it is produced where it is cheap and sold at a profit elsewhere.

What I found most interesting was when he spoke about Empire's need for control, for which they often use the state as a tool and science as a justification. The specific example given was the Netherlands' Manure Law, which did a rough (but inaccurate) calculation of how much manure (and thus, cows) any given field could handle and limited the number of cows to that number. In doing so, the law failed to take into consideration the differences between individual fields, soils, grasses, climates, and breeds of cows, and often limited farmers to fewer cows than their land could actually handle.

The entire discussion in the book reminded me of the food safety debate here. Whereas Empire has a major food safety problem, by and large, we aren't experiencing national recalls from the nations' peasant farms. Where craftsmanship and pride in a beautiful farm drive the production of food, food safety due to the gross criminal negligence we've seen in major national recalls is just not a problem. Furthermore, interference by the state with food safety legislation on these peasant farms can actually interrupt their activities and make them unable to survive financially. And, if the food safety bill in particular does not do this (and let's hope not!), then perhaps other regulatory schemes will. (Consider requirements for commercial kitchens, USDA- and state-inspected slaughterhouses, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, bans on raw milk, the requirement for almond pasteurization, etc, etc, etc.) The government regulation in these cases is often needed to regulate "Empire," but at the same time, Empire benefits from the regulation as peasants or small-time competition is driven out of business.

So perhaps it is no surprise that van der Ploeg says "In its relation to Empire, the peasantry increasingly represents resistance." (p. 265) And, having now met with peasants in several countries, I would certainly say that is the case.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 7, Part 2 - The Stingless Bee Workshop, Continued

This is the eighteenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our seventh day, a few members of our group led a beekeeping workshop focused on a few species of tropical stingless bees that are native to this part of Mexico. The bees, Meliponas and Trigonas, are declining in numbers, but their honey is highly medicinal. Mayans traditionally kept these bees and used their honey, but those traditions are being lost.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

Yesterday I wrote about the beginning of our stingless bee workshop, which was largely spent getting the kids - the workshop attendees were secondary school students and their teachers, ages 11 and up - excited about the topic. But once that was done, Raquel, who led the workshop, got into the meat of the topic. How does one care for a stingless bee and harvest its honey? And how is stingless bee honey used medicinally? Raquel was very hands on and she had the kids each make a spray for sore throats and a gel to apply to skin infections with the honey.

After the kids finished their skits, Raquel said, "The powers that be put an enormous amount of resources into dominating the planet, all the way down to little insects." She said that here, the native bees pollinate over half the plants in the zone, including trees and food crops, like rambutan and coffee. Meliponas are very important pollinators. She added "We know that people burn bees and chop them with machetes, but it's against indigenous customs to hurt the environment. We sometimes do it to eat, but we don't do just destroy things."

With that, Raquel got into the details of beekeeping. She started by going down the kids' list of questions:

Q: What do meliponas eat?

They eat nectar and pollen from flowers. The nectar is their carbohydrate, and the pollen is their protein. They eat these fresh but they also store them as honey and bee pollen, respectively. She noted here how the bees pollinate flowers as they go about nectar and pollen collection, but did not mention that meliponas use a different type of pollination than European honeybees. Meliponas do buzz pollination, just like bumblebees. Since several New World crops like tomatoes co-evolved with New World bees, they respond well to buzz pollination.

Raquel explained that humans are only interested in eating nectar and pollen that have been gathered by bees. Bee pollen, like you buy in health food stores, has been processed by the bee's saliva already. It's a very nutritious food, and it differs based on which type of flower it's from.

There are bees at the door of the hive that collect the pollen from each bee that comes in. Then the bee puts the nectar she has collected into the honey container by herself. One way to collect bee pollen is to put a trap on the door to the hive that wipes the pollen off the bee as each bee enters, dropping it into a collection container. However, Raquel emphasized, we should ONLY do this during high flowering periods, because otherwise we will kill the bees (since we're stealing their food).

I believe it was here in the workshop when we had our big discussion about pollination. If you can imagine how much an average 11 year old knows about flower anatomy and pollination, well... we had to cover all of that to make sure that everyone was on the same page. Raquel asked the kids what part of the flower the pollen was (comparing it to human reproduction), and she got the kids totally giggling by telling them it's the semen. Then Peter said, "Ask them how to say it in Ch'ol [their language]. Then they'll never forget it!" So someone asked them, and the kids got all embarrassed and wouldn't tell us. "Now we'll tell the whole world that the Ch'oles have no semen!" Peter joked, and the kids laughed even more.

Q: What kinds of bees are in the hive?

For social bees in general (not just meliponas), there is a queen, workers, and drones. A queen lives about five years, and she is five times bigger than the workers. The difference between the queen and the workers is food, since the queen eats royal jelly (which is full of vitamins, protein, and hormones). The worker bees are all girls, all sisters.

The male bees are drones, and they do not do much. They eat and they screw. Once in a very long while, the queen emerges from the hive and goes on a "nuptial flight." During this flight, the drones all compete and try to mate with her. Then she goes back to the hive and lays eggs, which is her main job. The only other thing the drones really do is help maintain the temperature of the hive.

Q: How long do bees live?

As noted above, the queen lives 5 to 7 years. Worker bees live 3 months, according to Raquel. This might be a specific number to meliponas, because I've heard a few different estimates on worker bee lifespan for European honeybees. Recently, a U.S. beekeeper told me that worker bees (European honeybees) live 42 days, although beekeepers fear that lifespan has declined down to 30 days recently. Drones, according to Raquel, live 4 months. (Again, this might be meliponas only.) Raquel added that workers eat honey, larvae eat honey and pollen, and the queen eats royal jelly.

Remember "Kings Play Chess On Fancy Green Silk"? The taxonomic order that bees are in includes bees, wasps, and ants. Below that, the family that all bees are in is Apidae, which includes all types of bees. There are some 20,000 species of bees, according to Raquel. Within that family, there is a "Tribe" that includes all stingless bees, Meliponini.

Meliponini includes a large number of genera (plural of genus), but we were focusing on only two: Melipona and Trigona. And within that, we were focusing on two species, Melipona beecheii and Trigona mexicana. These two species are domesticated, whereas the others aren't.

In Mexico, there are 46 species of Melipona and Trigona. Of these, 33 species are present in Chiapas. This is in large part because Chiapas has a mountain range running down its middle, dividing the state into a zillion peaks and valleys and, with them, microclimates. Meliponas and trigonas live, by and large, in tropical zones, although some live in the subtropics.

Q: What Makes a Bee Social?
Only 5% of all bee species are social. There are 3 criteria that define a bee as social:

1. Stores food.
2. Shares work.
3. All bees care for all the young in the hive.

Q: Why are Meliponas and Trigonas different from honeybees?
There are a few major differences between Meliponas and Trigonas compared to honeybees. First of all, they have more than one queen, whereas a colony of honeybees will only have one queen. In a Melipona hive, there might be 100 queens - but only one is fertile. The rest are virgins, and they are ready to form new hives. When there are many flowers, a virgin queen might fly off and mate with the drones of many hives (not just her own) and then form a new colony.

Second, honeybees store brood and honey in the same place (cells of the honeycomb). Meliponas do not. They store their honey in little honeypots, each about the size of the top joint of your thumb.

A hive of honeybees make much more honey that can be harvested each year. You can harvest some 35 liters of honey from a honeybee hive, but only 1/2 liter per year from a melipona hive.

And, between melipona and trigona, meliponas are fatter.

At this point, Raquel gave a number of warnings to the kids:

Paint the hive
Make the hive too big
Harvest honey in the middle of the day
Use a machete to cut open the hive
Leave the top of the hive open
Break the honey pots
Take all of the honey, leaving the bees with nothing
Harvest honey during a time of year with no flowers
Harvest all of the beeswax

DO: Harvest in April and May

(Later, when we made plans to come back and establish the first Melipona colony, we set the date for April, when there will be the most flowers. "We are asking the bees to change their home," Raquel told the kids, explaining why we needed to be very gentle and to do it at a time when it would be easiest for the bees to gather their food.)

At some point, during the workshop, a tom turkey wandered into our classroom, feathers puffed up, and strutted around for about a half an hour, despite several attempts to shoo him. A few chickens, meanwhile, quietly sat under the table I was at. And we could hear howler monkeys in the background. It was quite surreal.

Our friend, the turkey


In following the kids' normal school day schedule, we took a break around 11am while the students began preparing the evening meal (they only ate 2 meals a day, which is understandable when you consider how much dang work it is to build a wood fire and then make dried beans and tortillas from scratch). For breakfast, they had beans, tortillas, pasta, and sweetened herbal tea. For lunch, they had beans, tortillas, and rice. Lunch was served around 1pm, and then the kids went to the river to bathe, swim, and do laundry from about 2-3pm. I spent most of this time in my hammock, reading, and hanging out with friends.

Making the fire to cook lunch

Our room, with hammocks hung everywhere

The duck nesting in the room where we stayed

Melipona Honey as Medicine
When we came back together, the herbal medicine experts in our group presented their material. (The turkey, naturally, reported back for class.) Melipona honey is highly antibiotic. It can be used for cataracts, eye infections (like pinkeye), coughs, colds, and various skin infections. The kids made 2 different medicines with melipona honey.

Pomade: To make this, melt beeswax with oil in a double boiler, and add a bit of melipona honey. I would use perhaps 1/8th cup of beeswax, 1/2 cup of oil (olive oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil... take your pick), and I'm not sure how much honey. Once you've melted the wax and mixed everything together, put it in a container (like a glass jar) and let it cool. Use this on cuts/wounds, skin infections, and infected pimples by spreading it on your skin daily.

Throat Rinse: For this, mix melipona honey, water, and mint. (I need to get the proportions for each, and I will add them here once I do.) Then use it for throat infections, sore throats, and a cough with phlegm by rinsing your mouth with it and swallowing it every 4 hours.

The next day, we would go with a small group of students to actually see a melipona hive.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 7, Part 1 - The Stingless Bee Workshop

This is the seventeenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our seventh day, a few members of our group led a beekeeping workshop focused on a few species of tropical stingless bees that are native to this part of Mexico. The bees, Meliponas and Trigonas, are declining in numbers, but their honey is highly medicinal. Mayans traditionally kept these bees and used their honey, but those traditions are being lost.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

I had enjoyed visiting the fields of sunflowers in Nuevo San Gregorio, and bathing in a river surrounded by tropical forest and waterfalls in Roberto Barrios, but the beekeeping workshop was hands down the best part of the entire trip. I had heard of these native, stingless bees when I was in the Amazon. There, they have a few species of Meliponas they call "senorita" bees. (According to Peter, who led the trip to Chiapas, in nearly every language they are called "women's bees" because the hives were often tended by women.)

The beekeeping workshop actually started on the evening of our sixth day. Raquel, who led it, started by telling the kids - our audience was mostly kids, ages 11 and up - that she had a dream. She described the end goal of this project, which includes a vibrant population of meliponas and/or trigonas (two related genera of native stingless bees) that the students would tend and harvest honey from. The honey is both delicious and medicinal.

Raquel produced a large container of melipona honey (maybe a liter), which she said cost 700 pesos to buy (about $60 with current exchange rates). She passed around a small quantity of it and encouraged everyone to dab a finger in it and taste it, and then dab another finger in it and put the honey in their eyes. Yes, their eyes. One of the medicinal uses of this honey is treating eye infections. (I met a dog in Nuevo San Gregorio who had been successfully treated for an eye infection with melipona honey. His eyes were fine when I met him.)

The honey was much more liquidy than normal honey. I had been told that in advance, but it still took me by surprise when I stuck a finger in it and it didn't act like, well, honey. It tasted sweet and delicious, although slightly different from European honeybee honey. And when I put it in my eye, it stung. I teared up and the pain went away.

After explaining what she hoped to gain from this workshop, Raquel threw the question out to the kids. The attendees of our workshop included the entire secondary school, plus all of their instructors, and the director of the school. The kids' answers were quite interesting. Some kids wanted to learn about the bees because their ancestors and grandparents kept these bees. Others gave environmental reasons, and some simply said they wanted the honey.

But perhaps most interesting was the answer "Because these bees are just like us." Both the indigenous people and the indigenous bees were invaded by Europeans and their very existence was threatened as a result. The kids saw the parallel and they wanted to help their fellow indigenous critters. (Meliponas aren't threatened by European honeybees; they are threatened by people who ruin their habitat.)

Raquel asked the kids to think about which questions they had about the bees, and she gave them homework. When we met again at 7:30am, the kids would need to put on three 5-minute skits: one showing the bees in the past, one showing the present, and one depicting how the "capitalists" would treat the bees. (What Raquel was trying to drive home with this was the idea that we were not aiming to exploit these bees, merely co-exist with them in a mutually beneficial relationship.)

When we left that night, it was quite late. I was DONE, mentally and physically. But the kids, somehow, between late that night and early the next morning, put together some incredible skits.

First, a group showed how meliponas and trigonas were treated in the past. They cut out and drew masks depicting the Mayan bee gods and enlisted some of the small children (a few of the "education promoters" had kids) to wear the masks and play the bee gods. The kids showed a Mayan bee ceremony, which is traditionally practiced during the honey harvest.

The bee god masks

One kid dressed up as an old man with a white beard and a cane, and another played a grandma with a shawl. They lit a candle before the bee gods, and they used an old log as a prop for their beehive. During the skit, Peter leaned over to me and said that the kids had likely never actually seen a Mayan bee ceremony, so they were making it up - but they were doing a darn good job of it. He added that one reason why we know as much as we do about melipona honey in the past is because it was used for tax payments and records were kept, particularly in payments from the Mayans to the Aztecs.

(Unlike the kids, we have YouTube, and we can see the traditional Mayan bee ceremony.)

The second skit showed the "capitalists." In this skit, two businessmen found the bees and made a deal to export the bees and use lots of agrochemicals. One man used a backpack sprayer (used in Mexico to spray pesticides) to spray the bees, and another made a call on a cell phone and talked about getting rich by using the bees to pollinate crops. Then they caught the bees (played by the other kids in the skit) with ropes and shipped them to an orchard in the U.S.

The third skit showed the present. Men with machetes and Coca-Cola bottles were out in the jungle, and they came upon a hive of bees. They made a fire to drive the bees away, and then they hit the hive with their machetes. At that point, the bees drove them off (I guess they didn't know the bees couldn't sting). Then, a third kid approached them, saying he had attended a workshop about beekeeping and suggesting that they work together with the bees. So with that, they all decided to learn more about the bees and to treat them better in the future.

It could not have been a better segway into the content of the workshop. I also want to add how impressed I was with the kids props. The props were so realistic, from the log used as a beehive, to the backpack pesticide sprayer. And when they used fire, they actually lit fires. I thought as I watched that an adult in the U.S. would probably have a fit if the teenagers they were supervising decided to carry real machetes and light a real fire as props for a skit, but these kids have to light fires every single day to cook their food over wood stoves. They know how to handle fire, probably better than I do. Ditto on the machetes.

The next thing Raquel did was pass around several different beehives. She had the kids get into groups, and each group got one hive to look at. She asked them what they thought the different sections of the hive were for.

Trigona hive

Melipona hive

The same hive, with its lid on

Here, I cheated. Peter had already told me how the hives were used. Trigonas are smaller than Meliponas, so their hives are smaller as well. Otherwise, the hives are more or less identical. Both types of bees can live in horizontal or vertical hives like the ones shown here.

There are a few important needs that these hives meet. One is to minimize the bees' exposure to a type of parasitic fly that can get into a hive, lay eggs, and basically wipe out the entire colony. Second, when you harvest the honey, you don't want to take much. So the hives are set up to allow the beekeeper to open just a small part of the hive and quickly harvest the honey without allowing any parasites to get in.

In the vertical hive, the beekeeper uses a small knife to cut off the lid (which the bees will have fastened with propolis) and then does the same thing with the top segment of the hive. The beekeeper removes the top segment of the hive, and then puts the lid on top of the segment below it to keep the bees safe. Then, the beekeeper can take his or her time to harvest the honey from the small segment removed from the hive before putting it back. The entire bottom of the hive is filled with brood (bee eggs and larvae) and honey that the bees are allowed to keep. I assume the horizontal hives are used similarly, with the small compartment harvested for honey and the larger compartment left for the bees to do their thing.

To be continued in Part 2...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 6, Part 4 - The Poster, Continued

This is the sixteenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our sixth day, we went to stay with the Zapatistas at Roberto Barrios, near Palenque. This diary is about a poster I saw in their secondary school that explains their philosophy quite clearly.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

I'd like to clarify why I am posting this, since obviously the content of these posters are controversial and, in some cases, inflammatory. I am not posting these because I agree with them. I am posting them because they show - in the Zapatistas own words - what the Zapatistas believe. That said, I agree with parts of what they say. And I also think that these posters show a very accurate picture of Milton Friedman economics, what the Zapatistas call "neoliberalismo." I don't oppose capitalism, but I do strongly oppose neoliberalism, and that is what capitalism has turned into around the world in the last several decades.

From Feudalism To Capitalism

"Feudal society ruled from 400 to 1800 A.D. During this time, society was ruled by a monarch, that is, a king. The king had all of the political power and controlled the economy and enslaved society."

"Fiefs enslaved the population under its grip, by the power of the king. Society as a whole was subordinated politically, not having the power to decide how they wanted to live, how they want to work, or what they want to do with the products of their labor."

"But on the other side, there is the immense poverty from the slavery they received from the feudal lords and the dispossession of their lands."

This picture shows a campesino (peasant farmer) trading with a merchant.

"Society produced enough to supply its population, and a class emerged that was committed to the purchase of products and selling them in other regions." ("De las actividades que realisaban la sociedad se producia lo suficiente para abastecer a la poblacion luego surgieron quienes se dedicaron a la compra y venta de producto, comercializando en otras regiones")

"In the process of trade, they faced great difficulties in the exchange of products. They solved this problem by creating and inventing money and determining its value themselves. Over the course of time, the traders accumulated economic wealth."

To get the spot in society they wanted, they used the people for a revolt against the feudal system and formed a new society that includes them, the bourgeois. ("Pero tambien para lograr el espacio que ellos querian utiliza a la gente para una rebelion contra el sistema feudal y se forma la nueva sociedad a la que ofrece la, el burgues.")

"This development permitted the development of science and the invention of machines, steamboats, trains, and these advances in technology facilitated much commerce."

Major Industry
Thus, they created great workshops like handicrafts and agriculture. They also offered people paid (salaried) work, and this form of work has attracted a lot of people, which made the king lose political and economic power. Through economic development, traders conquered political power and society. ("Con ello crearon grandes talleres como artesania, agricultura asi tambien ofreciendole trabajo a la gente asalariadamente, esta forma de trabajo atrajo mucho a la gente y fue perdiendo el poder del rey politicamente y economicamente asi los comerciantes mediante su desarrollo economico conquistan el poder politico y la sociedad.")

World War

"Wars between powerful countries arose from disputes about markets to sell their products, because at times there will be lots of production but too few markets to sell them to."

I cannot read or translate this section perfectly, but here's the best I've got, plus the Spanish below:

"To achieve the great splendor of the bourgeoisie, the situation of society is getting worse and is expressed by providing the new society they called "socialism." This new society was detrimental to the capitalist society. The idea of fighting for a new society emerged in Russia, when workers organized to fight against the oppressor class. Leading the fight was Lenin, following the theory of Marx and Engels. They triumphed, conquering the power in the struggle, and they form a socialist society. This idea of fight arrived in America in Cuba, headed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Then Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. During that time the socialist struggle was convenient as an enemy of capitalism."

("Al lograr su gran esplendor de la burguesia, la situacion de la sociedad, se empeoraba y se expresa proporcionando a la nueva sociedad a la que se conoce como "socialismo." Esta nueva sociedad perjudicaba a la sociedad capitalista la idea de luchar por una nueva sociedad surgio en rusia, cuando los obreros se organizan para luchar contra la clase opresora el que encabeza la lucha fue lenin, siguiendo la teoria de marx y engels se triunfa la lucha conquistan el poder y forma una socieda socialista. Este idea de lucha, llegaron bien en America como en cuba encabezado por Fidel Castro y Che Guevara. Tambien en Chile, Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, y Mexico. Durante ese tiempo la lucha socialista se conviente como un enemigo del capitalismo.")

There was also a third poster, which was partially blocked. I took a few pictures to capture what I could of it.

This is where our ancestors lived.

"Before the people were discovered, they had their own dress, cultures, beliefs, and forms of organization."
("Antes los pueblos se encontraban bien, estructuradas tenian sus propias costumbres, culturas, creencias, sus formas de organizacion")

They had their own languages, architecture, mathematics, artisans, astronomy, writers, their own form of writing, and their own calendars.

Education was divided, between the sons of nobles and the sons of peasants.

They dressed in animal skins.

Peoples, like the Aztecs, invaded this territory because they wanted to extend their dominion and to have tribute paid to them.
("Los pueblos se invadian por sus territorios por el pago de tributos, por que ellos querian extender sus dominios asi como hicieron los aztecas.")

They were polytheists who worshiped nature.

There were peoples who had human sacrifices for their gods.

All of these peoples were autonomous.

They had their own armies.

A brotherhood existed.

This tells about "encomiendas," a labor system the Spanish put in place during the conquest of the Americas. The poster says that under this, the peasants were forced to work the land and give up their harvest as tribute, keeping only a small part for their own consumption.

"They took our land and our right to govern ourselves. Foreigners imposed their ways, their language, their beliefs, their god, and their justice system on us."

"Their god was gold. They conquered us and our land because there wasn't enough gold. Our grandfathers had to deal with these foreigners. They were good warriors and they fought and many died."

"They were forced to become Christian and the Holy Inquisition would not allow them to worship other gods."

Neoliberalism in Our Country