Life sweeter for beekeepers in Chile

In an area of widespread poverty thirty five beekeepers got together in 1994 to sell their honey. In debt to local money lenders they still struggled to make a decent living. Since becoming Fairtrade certified the beekeepers are earning 20% more for their honey, they have built their own processing facilities and improved their standard of living.

11 January 2012

Freed from moneylenders and exploitative middlemen, each COASBA member has a regular guaranteed income.

Sitting in their one-storey wooden office in a corner of the plaza of the quiet market town of Santa Bárbara in southern Chile, Joel Uribe and Luis Villaroel talk about their beekeepers’ cooperative, COASBA, with quiet pride.

Joel, an engineer by training, founded the association in 1994 and built it up from next to nothing, using his home as an office and working unpaid to get COASBA on its feet. More recently, Luis, who used to drive lorries for a living, took over from Joel as president.

Early on, COASBA’s members - families who kept bees and produced honey on a small scale – were all part-timers. Very few owned any land, so most had to rent a small plot for their hives. None could earn a decent livelihood as honey producers.

COASBA has come a long way

Today most of COASBA’s 35 members, including two women, practise beekeeping full time. Honey and bee serum are their main source of income. After years of effort invested in developing their skills and processes, Joel and Luis claim the taste, cleanliness and nutritious quality of their honey are among the best in the country. They feel they are raising standards in their industry for the whole of Chile’s BioBío region.

At first, coop members were often in debt to local moneylenders. They had to use the cheapest low-quality bulk containers to transport the honey. There was little time to spend on hygiene, pest and disease control, or breeding. Plus they had no way of knowing when they would make their next sale. That was before COASBA heard about Fairtrade.

Then they heard about Fairtrade

Joel and Luis believe they could not have developed COASBA without Fairtrade. And they claim that Fairtrade has helped raise earnings for beekeepers all round – not just for coop members.

Introduced to Fairtrade by a Chilean church-based development organization supported by the European Union, COASBA’s honey has been Fairtrade certified for the past five years. The most obvious benefit, for Joel and Luis, is that Fairtrade means better incomes. Coop members get 20 per cent more for their honey than when they sell through other channels.

All COASBA members – who between them now keep several thousand beehives, producing roughly 130 tonnes of honey a year – allocate some of their produce to be bulked up in modern stainless steel drums and sold to Apicoop, a large Fairtrade certified exporter cooperative based on the coast. Apicoop exports the honey to Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the UK. In the UK it’s an ingredient in Traidcraft’s popular Geobars.

Joel and Luis believe they could not have developed COASBA without Fairtrade. And they claim that Fairtrade has helped raise earnings for beekeepers all round – not just for coop members.

Freed from moneylenders and exploitative middlemen, each COASBA member has a regular guaranteed income. The coop pays them once a year, which enables people to plan. COASBA itself retains a percentage of sales income to invest in improving production processes and for administration. This has created several new jobs, such as for Maria-José Cordoba, the young woman who runs the small office in the plaza. Coop households have raised their standard of living. Many have bought their own plot of land and improved their homes. Several now own a vehicle for transporting the honey. Some of their children are among the first from this rural community to go to university.
In a region where rural poverty is widespread, family finances are far better than before. Crucially, the younger generation can see a future in beekeeping and in running a coop, rather than joining the exodus of young rural unemployed to the bigger towns and cities.

The coop has earned a reputation for paying off its debts promptly and won respect from such bodies as the Agriculture Ministry’s Institute for Agriculture and Livestock Development. Between members there is increasing trust and mutual support. When necessary COASBA lends members money to buy equipment or medicines for their bees, with more time to repay than before. It has supported member households through periods of hospitalisation.

Professional development, advice and training are another major benefit. Maintaining and improving production standards are all important to COASBA. The coop is a member of Chile’s national network of beekeepers and prides itself on high technical and sanitary standards. Joel and Luis sense they are gaining national level recognition for their produce.

COASBA has recently begun to provide advisory services for local beekeepers outside the coop, along with programmes in basic beekeeping for the local municipality. Though not certified organic, Joel and Luis claim their honey is organic in all but name. They see beekeeping as essentially an ecological activity and are determined to help protect the diverse native flora of the beautiful BioBío river valley.

Honey from Santa Bárbara

Joel and Luis’s ambition is for COASBA to become an independent honey exporter. They foresee the day when jars labelled 'Honey from Santa Bárbara' will be on sale in food shops throughout Chile, Europe and even the Middle East.

COASBA’s confidence is growing. At the heart of their future plans lies the small yet ultra-modern honey processing plant and laboratory they are building just outside the town. The new one-storey building will house facilities that, they intend, will be second to none in the whole country. Initial support for the project, begun in 1999, came from a regional non-profit foundation. The building is almost ready and will enable the coop to add far more value to their product. Here they will not only bulk up their honey for export but also bottle it in jars for domestic retail markets, proudly labelled 'Honey from Santa Bárbara'. At the front gate will be a shop selling honey to passers-by.

The laboratory they are installing will enable coop members to diagnose and control diseases among their bee colonies far more effectively and promptly. Currently they have to send samples away for analysis. The idea is for the laboratory to serve not just members but beekeepers throughout the region. Genetic improvement and training programmes are being planned in partnership with two Chilean universities.

Joel and Luis’s ambition is for COASBA to become an independent honey exporter. They foresee the day when jars labelled 'Honey from Santa Bárbara' will be on sale in food shops throughout Chile, Europe and even the Middle East.

Notes:

COASBA’s full name is Cooperativa Campesina Apícola Santa Bárbara. Miles Litvinoff interviewed Joel Uribe and Luis Villaroel in Santa Bárbara, Chile, on 29 December 2005.

(C) Miles Litvinoff 2006. This article is from Miles Litvinoff’s and John Madeley book, 50 Reasons to Buy Fair Trade. No permission is needed by Fair Trade organisations to reproduce the article, provided that Miles Litvinoff is acknowledged as the author and notified of its use (miles.litvinoff@ phonecoop.coop).

 
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