A millenary occupation flourishes as an alternative livelihood project in one of the newest tourism hotspots in the Caribbean. The place is Roatan, in the north coast of Honduras in an island archipelago known as the Bay Islands. The goal – to find an alternative livelihood for specific rural communities that have traditionally relied on artisanal fishing as their only source of income. Fishing is no doubt one of the most prevalent vocations found in the Bay Islands, and like in many fishing communities in the developing world, more often than not, sustainable fishing practices are pretty much bailed out the side of the boat when out at sea. It is not hard to find testimony from locals on how these unsustainable fishing practices have led to a steady reduction of the same fish populations that their rural communities have depended on, putting their own livelihoods at risk, not to mention the health of the reef, and now, the island’s emerging tourism economy.It is important to note that there is a unique connection between the reef and Roatan’s success as a developing tourism destination. It was precisely its brightly colored corals and all the biodiversity that dwells in them that first launched this island into the international dive scene, ushering in a subsequent boom in the sun, sea, & sand tourism industry, followed later by an influx of cruise shippers from some the world’s biggest international cruise lines. This unprecedented popularity and its potential threats also sparked an opportune conservation movement led by the local community to protect these valuable ecosystems. Today, the results of these concerned individuals materialized into the creation of a marine protected area for the Bay Islands, a much-needed measure if local stakeholders intend to make a shift towards a healthier and at the same time sustainable tourism industry.The Roatan Marine Park (RMP) – which is one of the local NGOs in charge of co-managing the marine protected area, has been instrumental in the development of adequate management plans which aim is to relieve some of the pressures on these marine protected waters, its fish stocks and their precious habitats. Through education, working together with the local communities, and the implementation of specific fishing guidelines, their hope is to get the residents to follow their advice, allowing for these degraded fisheries to recover in a few years time. It is crucial for the local community to understand about the importance of protecting these marine resources, which if managed effectively, are well capable of providing social, economic, and cultural benefits to a large segment of the population.This situation as reasonable as it may seem, does pose certain challenges, like trying to reach out to fishermen who have relied on these unsustainable fishing practices for years, and get them to change their old habits with new fishing methods without affecting their day to day sustenance. Thus, an inclusive and sustainable solution was more than necessary, one that would alleviate the stress on these resources but also take into consideration the communities’ need to earn a living. Inspired by successful stories of beekeeping and honey production as an alternative income stream aside from fishing taking place throughout the region, the RMP decided to experiment with this option resulting in the creation of a pilot apiculture project funded by the German development bank KFW, and the MarFund – a privately managed fund that looks after the health of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), a coral reef system that spans along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.After going through the usual administrative processes, this grassroots initiative finally materialized into the Corozal Beekeeping Association – a legally constituted enterprise made up of 10 members benefiting some seven local families in the community of Corozal. This tight-knit fishing village is located adjacent to a restricted zone within the marine protected area, in a section of the marine park so heavily overfished that the community urgently needed to find an alternative route to a sustainable livelihood, one that would provide them with additional income, improve their standards of living, and simultaneously reduce their impact on the reef. The fact that this community is also known to possess traditional honey hunting skills, as this is a common trade performed by the local villagers, also made them the obvious choice for a project of this nature. Add plenty of vegetation and docile European bees already present in the area, and it made the fit all that much better.Starting out with only 5 beehives in 2012, the Corozal Beekeeping Association has steadily expanded and is now handling close to 40 hives. Each one has been assembled using mostly locally sourced materials and is put together by the same members that make up the association. Each hive has been stacked randomly, on a small hillside that features amazing panoramic views of the village, the jungle, and the higher you go, an always available and always beautiful Roatan ocean view. These entrepreneurial and hopefully soon to be ex-fishermen are now responsible for the manufacture and bottling of three different types of honey, all of which are distributed at the RMP Eco-Store in West End, Roatan. Their product offering includes regular honey, honey with honeycomb, and balsamic honey, the latter of which has to be one of their most versatile creations which includes a mixture of eucalyptus, mint extract, and honey, that is transformed into a highly efficient and pleasant flavored, bronquial dilator. Mario Gallardo, the apiculture specialist and technical advisor hired by the RMP, commented on the association’s growth potential as their goal is to help them diversify their offer in the near future and move past honey harvesting onto the manufacture of soaps, creams, shampoo, and lipstick, made from bees wax – a beekeeping derivative product and valuable commodity in the world market.
Clearly, a project like this requires more than just technical and logistics support, a heavy dose of environmental education is mandatory if you want to achieve long-term results. One of the outcomes from this intervention can be observed in the way the association is now working with the local honey hunters in the area. The previous methodology was for these individuals to extract the honey found in trees by setting them on fire in order to remove the bees and collect the honey. Now, with this newly acquired know-how, the Corozal Beekeeping Association can step in and collect the bees without setting the jungle ablaze, incorporating these wild bees into their own beehives, while delivering the honey to the honey hunters. This is a win-win situation for all, the bees can continue to make more honey in a different neighborhood, a hunter searching for honey gets his prize, and the loss of precious habitat is avoided.
A similar situation has developed in the restricted zone. Don Isidro Flores, the village patriarch and President of the Apiary, has been extremely receptive to the personalized training provided by the RMP and its Executive Director, Giaco Palavicini. Getting the community to understand the negative impacts of unsustainable fishing practices has been crucial for them to start making changes. As a result, he is now a responsible fisherman and is well familiar with the current fishing conditions. “Fishing is prohibited and you want to respect the laws, if there were no fishing laws, this reef would be destroyed more than it already is”, says Don Isidro. He knows all too well how education can lead to positive results, as he has lived abroad and has seen first hand, how informed fishermen can have positive impacts on the health of the reef simply by following regulations. He also recognizes that one of the main reasons why fishermen continue to over fish and disregard those fishing restrictions, is because they always find people who want to buy their product. “Those at fault are those who purchase them”, comments Don Isidro – “If a fisherman catches small fish and tries to sell them to several distributors but no one buys them, they will think twice about the spent energy necessary to collect that fish again”. Fortunately for them, they now rely on beekeeping as an alternative livelihood as they run a self-sustained cooperative where the surplus revenue from the sale of honey is proportionally distributed amongst its members, who also act as owners and decide how they want to manage it and the direction they want the coop to take. They are very thankful with the RMP, because if it weren’t for them they would not perceive this additional income, which has allowed them to follow the straight and narrow path towards sustainable fishing.
But is this project really having a positive impact on the health of the reef in Roatan? There is significant scientific proof out there that the Roatan reefs, in particular, those found on the Western side of the island, are relatively healthy. In fact, according to the Healthy Reefs Initiative (one of the first global efforts which measures coral reef health in the MAR region), and its latest Healthy Reefs Report Card, the island of Roatan obtained the best score at the sub regional level, with a 3.8 out of 5 rating according to its Reef Health Index (RHI). This figure measures the ecological conditions found in multiple sites throughout the MAR with Honduras exhibiting the highest score in all of Mesoamerica in the coral cover parameter with 20%. Honduras as a country also received the best score in the entire region beating the likes of Mexico and Belize but only with a “fair” score of 3.3 RHI, not an ideal score to say the least. This means there is still room for improvement, in particular at the country level where the amount of commercial fish such as groupers received a “poor” rating, not to mention the high macroalgal abundance which received a “critical” score, both key RHI indicators.Nonetheless, there are promising signs of increased commercial fish biomass at the local level and in particular in the marine protected areas found in and around Western Roatan. That leads us to believe that the Corozal Beekeeping Project together with many other initiatives taking place on the island of Roatan are definitely doing their part in helping produce these favorable results. If all goes well, this pilot apiculture project could then be replicated in other areas of Roatan, and why not the rest of Honduras. By educating local communities and by providing them with alternative options for additional income streams other than fishing, communities can change their lives for the better, whilst doing their part to boost fish stocks that nurture a healthier reef, a valuable resource that will continue to pay dividends by attracting more and more tourists to Roatan and The Bay Islands for years to come.