How associating to produce and export honey improved the living conditions of the inhabitants of the Impenetrable Chaco
13 Jun 2022
Working together and receiving support from public policy radically changed the lives of rural residents of Chaco who turned to beekeeping and, particularly, to the production of organic honey. The initiative has a triple impact: social (it improved its economy), environmental (it is much more sustainable than large-scale agriculture) and the insertion of women in the activity.
Everyone knows Vicente Godoy by his nickname: Cusico. He was born 60 years ago in the Impenetrable, “a forgotten area of Chaco, without roads or schools. In fact, I learned to read in the army, when I did my military service,” he says. His family had a field in the mountains and was dedicated to collecting cotton and raising goats, among other rural activities.
In the year 2000, when those jobs stopped earning him money, Vicente began working in construction and in commerce, in the city of Miraflores, located on the edge of this region of the Chaco forest. “But I always believed in the field and a few years later I started beekeeping, with 10 hives. I was the first producer in Miraflores”, he affirms.
By 2014, the producers, who were already a group of six who received training from the local government, began to manage the documentation to build a honey processing room and thus be able to guarantee the traceability of their production. They also formed the Native Forest Civil Association, which today brings together more than 34 producers who generate up to 240 300-kilo drums per year, most of which are exported to the United States or to European countries, such as France or Germany.
Currently, Vicente lives exclusively from his bee production. He has 150 certified organic hives, plus another 50 or 60 that produce conventional honey that he uses to train other beekeepers or raise bees. In addition, he is one of the fourteen technicians that the provincial government hired to help grow beekeeping in the province.
“With the beehives I was able to have things that I never had before, like buying a zero kilometer vehicle or a motorcycle to travel the hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads to the countryside. I also make my house, fence my 100-hectare field with quebrachos and palms, among other trees, which I preserve because they are essential for beekeeping,” he says.
Vicente’s story is not an isolated story. The subsistence of a large part of the inhabitants of the province of Chaco depends on the work provided by the State —through the possibility of being part of the police or the health and educational systems— and, to a lesser extent, on the sale of wood by cutting down the trees of the forest or from the production and sale of bricks. But many of the people who live in places far from the urban centers when they are not able to join any of these jobs end up joining the number of inhabitants of vulnerable neighborhoods in the cities of Chaco.
In search of sustainable sources of work, the provincial government began to strongly promote beekeeping between 2012 and 2013. It incorporated small producers into the production chain in order to boost regional economies with a high local social impact. “In this way, in 2017, with the organic certification, we incorporated Impenetrable,” says Marta Soneira, provincial minister of Environment and Sustainable Territorial Development.
The Government promoted beekeeping and through the Network of Technicians, which together with the Network of Beekeeping Organizations of Chaco, the Civil Association of Youth of Impenetrable Chaqueño and the National Service for Health and Food Quality (SENASA) managed to increase honey production in general and organic honey for export, in particular. For organic production, the province obtained financing from the World Bank.
In this way, Chaco exports between 2,500 and 3,000 drums each year. Of which, 912 are organic honey produced by some 98 families —80% of them live in the Impenetrable or its surroundings; the others, in Tres Isletas and in the wetlands of General San Martín.
In 2021, 60% of Chaco honey was exported to the United States and 40% to the European Union. The producers and the producers of organic honey achieved up to 100 pesos of difference with respect to the common one: 360 pesos in one case, 260 in the other.
Argentina is the third honey producing country in the world, behind the United States and China, and the second exporter. In the country there are just over 15,000 producers who have about 3.5 million hives, according to the national registry of beekeeping producers (RENAPA). According to estimates of the Beekeeping Coordination of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of the Nation (MAGyP), of a total production that has exceeded 70,000, a volume close to 6,000 tons (just under 9%) is destined to the internal market.
Chaco, for its part, has 823 producers registered with RENAPA, “who have some 81,000 registered hives, a number that we want to double as of August of this year, in which some 1,200 tons are produced,” reports Soneira.
Organic honey is achieved as a team
Chaco’s organic honey is produced in a wooded area of three million hectares that is traveled by dirt roads and where there is almost no electricity or possibilities to connect to the internet. Therefore, “the grouping of producers is essential to carry out production and marketing. Even more so when, although there is a company that exports the drums, the producers themselves must be registered to comply with the necessary traceability in the certification”, explains Pablo Chipulina, coordinator of the Network of Technicians of the province.
To comply with this documentation, Chipulina details, “many times it is necessary to start by processing the national identity document (DNI) of the person.”
The Association of Young Beekeepers, for example, which has three offices: one in Tartagal, another in El Sauzalito and another in Pozo del Gato, has two plants enabled to process the organic honey produced in the area.
The producers bring the honeycombs there, which are placed in the extractor that extracts the honey by centrifugal force, which is then packaged in drums approved by SENASA and is ready for export.
Now, for this to happen, explains Chipulina, “every producer should have registered with RENAPA, have a tax code and have registered with the computer system for customs procedures (SITA). In turn, the rooms have to be authorized and registered in a SENASA traceability system that makes any buyer in the world, by scanning the drum code, know everything from the name of the producer and its location to the company that exported it. Added to this is the organic protocol required by the importing country”.
It is a process that requires a lot of documentation, which must be processed most of the time from places where there is no electricity. It is there where the network of 14 technicians coordinated by Chipulina accompanies, manages and trains so that they can materialize from production to export.
Luis Romero is from El Sauzalito, a town 300 kilometers from the city of Castelli. He is 34 years old and is a beekeeper. He learned the activity when he was a boy, helping other beekeepers. But neither they nor their family could increase production because they were very far from urban centers and freight was expensive.
In 2017, “we were about 15 producers —six from El Sauzalito, six from Tartagal and three from Paraje Pozo del Gato— who knew that our honey was organic, that it had that added value, but we did not have the certification. For this reason, we formed the Association of Young Beekeepers to process it together”, says Luis.
They started producing with 33 boxes that throughout that year were transformed into beehives. But they did not have drums or a room enabled for extraction that would allow them to maintain traceability. To get the rooms, among many other things, the Network of Technicians of the province helped them.
They also obtained a commercial ally, a producer and exporter. Thus, Mieles de Chaco is the brand that buys their production and exports it on behalf of each producer. “Because being organic, for traceability, it is sold under our name,” explains Luis, who today already has 300 hives, while the association already brings together some 70 producers who generate almost 400 drums per year.
“In other places, beekeeping is a sideline. Not here, young people join because they have no job options. If they are not beekeepers, they dedicate themselves to felling the forest and selling the wood or they go to a city. With beekeeping they see that they can acquire things that they would not otherwise achieve”, describes Luis.
In addition, he says that where there are beekeepers, not a single tree is cut, because they know the importance of having trees. He explains: “Without trees there are no flowers and without flowers there is no nectar to feed the bees. The carob tree, which is one of the most important trees in our area, in turn allows cattle and pigs to be fed with their beans”.
Luis has two daughters aged 16 and 13 and a son aged 8. What he earns allowed him, among other things, to buy them a motorbike so they could go to school, which is five kilometers away, and build a house. “I didn’t know until recently what an air conditioner was and today they have one in each room. And if they want to continue studying I can help them to do so. Of course, you have to learn to manage yourself because the money enters once a year ”, clarifies Luis.
Chaco could expand the area of organic production. “In the Impenetrable, from the city of Castelli to the north; in the eastern part of the province, the Margarita Belén and General San Martín wetlands; and the submeridional lowlands, almost on the border with the province of Santa Fe”, are, according to Chipulina, the areas where it is possible to do so.
For that, he details, financing is needed —each hive in production requires an investment of between 20,000 and 30,000 pesos—, documentation management and that producers understand that organic —honey, goat meat, etc.— can be sustainable and generate greater income, the same as the denomination of origin.
Chipulina continues: “More public policies are needed because the pressure from the agricultural system is very strong. It is also necessary to focus on the integration of productive systems with differentiation that exist in the area, which allow higher income for producers, while guaranteeing the conservation of the environment and the sustainability of the processes. In this context, a van can make a difference”.
In addition, that the planning of these programs, which is often done in centers far from the territories, “take into account the characteristics of the place and the culture, in this case of the original peoples, the Creoles and those who came from outside and they were installed”, highlights the technician.
The province exports 98% of the honey it produces. “To achieve this, we have 30 beekeeping organizations that bring together local producers and that function in a community manner. In turn, each organization has the necessary infrastructure to pack honey in drums. Then they all sell together, so they get better prices and predictability,” says Soneira.
Another issue is the source of work for women represented by beekeeping. They generally take care of the administration, assembly and cleaning of the frames, which are activities that are carried out at home. The insertion of women in the sector grew so much that today some manage or preside over the organizations.