Thu | Sep 29, 2022

Mining liquid gold in Cockpit Country

An award-winning community group’s foray into beekeeping and agroforestry

Published:Tuesday | May 24, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Toussaint Brown (right) and Jacqueline Williams use the smoker to safely and harmlessly clear bees for hive inspection.
Toussaint Brown (right) and Jacqueline Williams use the smoker to safely and harmlessly clear bees for hive inspection.
Toussaint Brown, Christina Sinclair (centre), and Jacqueline Williams on duty at one of their apiaries.
Toussaint Brown, Christina Sinclair (centre), and Jacqueline Williams on duty at one of their apiaries.
Weeds are kept high closer to harvest on this pineapple farm to confuse would-be thieves.
Weeds are kept high closer to harvest on this pineapple farm to confuse would-be thieves.

“The bees are angry today,” said Toussaint Brown, casting a wary eye at the noon-day sun then disapprovingly at a parked SUV, engine running.

“They don’t like heat, and they don’t like noise,” he explained, flashing his hand to ease the pain from a bee sting. He is used to it by now.

“Please move the vehicle from this spot,” he asked as he opens a window into the unique world of bees. Toussaint is a former assistant teacher-turned-full-time beekeeper after receiving apiculture training provided by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), with funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP/GEF SGP). He has now notched two years of co-managing his group’s apiaries in Sawyers, a district in Jamaica’s world-famous Cockpit Country.

Through a project designed to preserve natural resources while generating sustainable livelihoods in harmony with nature, UNDP/GEF SGP is supporting Toussaint’s group with beekeeping and agroforestry training and inputs to help preserve this globally important region of plant diversity and biodiversity. Toussaint heads Sawyers Local Forest Management Committee (LFMC) Benevolent Society, primary partners in this effort to strike a balance between nature and livelihoods.

Home is Sawyers district, technically located in Trelawny on Jamaica’s north coast but also sited within the boundaries of the Cockpit Country. It is Jamaica’s most distinctive landscape, featuring dense clusters of small conical-shaped hills stretching across six parishes and 22,327 hectares of forest reserves. Forty per cent of the island’s exploitable water sources flow above and underground. Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s largest remaining block of wet limestone forest, with a remarkable concentration of endemic species coexisting with a population of 70,000 persons, including the famous Maroons. Despite its historical and environmental value, Cockpit Country continues to be threatened by unsustainable practices largely led by small-scale farmers cutting trees to make yam sticks and charcoal, says a report on drivers of land cover change. Sustainable livelihood alternatives like beekeeping deploy nature’s biodiversity warriors and pollinators to support income-generating opportunities that are kind to the environment.

With this in mind, a US$118,000 grant from UNDP/GEF SGP matched by US$120,000 in cash, kind, and sweat equity from Sawyers LFMC financed 60 hive boxes for 11 bee apiaries, plus beekeeping training from RADA for nine persons, including Toussaint, in 2019. The grant also backed the conversion of a 40-foot container into a fully solarised office and facility with water harvesting infrastructure to extract and store honey and farming inputs; distributed seedlings and other inputs for 65 farmers; set up an automatic weather station; and reforested 13.5 hectares of forest reserve with agroforestry crops for honeybees to feast on. This benefitted 20 farmers and the honeybee’s plant-to-hive production line.

Project development and implementation is a community affair, engaging more than 600 residents in and outside of Sawyers and providing livelihood opportunities in farming and beekeeping for 230. As trained beekeeping teachers, Toussaint and his eight peers in turn trained 15, bringing the cohort of trained beekeepers serving 11 apiary sites to 24. They are also training two other beekeepers in a neighbouring community, spreading the skills and opportunities further afield.

Honey Poised for Growth

Two of the group’s 11 apiaries are managed by Sawyers LMFC and the other nine by communities bordering Sawyers. They collectively supply honey, bee pollen, and beeswax and will trade under the group’s Liquid Gold brand pending accreditation from the Bureau of Standards of Jamaica. Groups like Sawyers LFMC are among a growing cohort getting beekeeping inputs and training in the Cockpit Country and beyond from a diversity of organisations and the Government. Market data indicates that it is an inroad to poverty reduction. In 2015, Jamaica was forecast to earn $1 billion from honey sales by Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and a 23 per cent return on investment, according to JAMPRO. Globally, honey’s market size was valued at US$9.21 billion in 2020, with a compounded annual growth rate of 8.2 per cent, says a market analysis report by Grand View Research.

Sawyers LFMC is determined to cut into this pie. “Last year, we got 16 buckets of honey - one bucket holds 22 bottles of honey, and one bucket means $55,000, a total of $800, 000,” Toussaint revealed. He says the project expanded on inputs previously received by another agency but added critical training and equipment like a honey harvester to assure results. “Because of the GEF small grant, our knowledge base was expanded, and we learned more about harvesting of the honey. We were able not only to sell honey, but we were able to sell other by-products such as pollen and wax. We got 11 pounds of pollen and sold 53 pounds of wax for $2,500 per pound,” he said.

“(Beekeeping) generates more money than our usual practices of planting just yam,” Toussaint explained. Now, they are expanding by selling their services and bee colonies to other groups that are planning to venture into apiculture. Sawyers group splits the hives, allowing them to keep a bee population in the box while earning $30,000 per box, he said. They are now working closely with South-East LFMC and North Cockpit Country LFMC, which are set to acquire at least 10 boxes of bees from Sawyers. “That’s new business for the group, and we can get at least $300,000 from expansion,” Toussaint revealed.

UNDP/GEF SGP national coordinator in Jamaica, Hyacinth Douglas, says mandatory training is one of the keys to the results now being reaped. “It is important for beekeepers to develop skills and knowledge to manage honeybees in an effective manner in order to promote and improve bee health. It’s also to ensure that they develop good standards of beekeeping in order to minimise pests and disease risks to the bees,” she said.

Working symbiotically with the new bee populations are the project’s agroforestry installations on 13.5 hectares in Sawyers and on the plots of 65 farmers. By distributing timber trees and low crops such as sweet pepper, Scotch bonnet pepper, and pineapple, the project is working to ensure that the agroforestry method takes root in Sawyers, providing a source of pollination, food for the bees, and reversing forest degradation in watershed areas, Hyacinth explained. Forest degradation in watersheds is a key cause of significant losses to freshwater flora and faunal resources, according to Jamaica’s 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity Fourth National Report.

“Lives and families of the farmers have tremendously improved because of this project. They were able to make ends meet and extend a helping hand to other persons in the communities. Farmers have expanded their fields, and they are telling us they have been harvesting a lot of peppers weekly and bi-weekly,” Toussaint shared.

Leneva Dale, a farmer of Alps district in Trelawny, is one of the 65 who have adopted this renowned climate change and adaptation method on his farm. “It’s been real profitable, man. Everything good. It’s good, only through the COVID come in it ‘kinda’ break it down, but it still going good and improving ...,” Dale disclosed. “I would say about 8 to 10 per cent more harvest,” he added.

Tracking Weather with Technology

Beverly Brown tends a pineapple field near the LFMC office and believes that they will harvest no less than five-pound pines come July-August. But they must keep watch. “Because the pine shooting out, we do not weed, or they will be stolen” she said frankly.

In the middle of the pineapple field stands the brand-new automatic weather station surrounded by a chain-link fence. And although it is feeding data to relevant agencies for weather forecasting and planning purposes, the farmers are also finding it valuable. “We use it to track the weather patterns. So now, we can tell when there will be a lot of rainfall, so the farmers can prepare for that. Knowing ahead of time helps us know when to plant and how to plant, and when they will have to do their own watering. It definitely helps us reap more. We also have less spoilage,” she disclosed.

Buzzed by their successes, the group is getting ready to take the project to the next level with a US$143, 000 grant from the Inter-American Foundation submitted with technical support from UNDP/GEF SGP. The recently approved project will upscale the GEF SGP intervention by strengthening the Sawyers enterprise and their honeybee by-product lines, cultivating climate-resilient crops and investing in new farming techniques. They are also getting ready to help neighbouring communities in the Cockpit Country to get into beekeeping.

Hyacinth Douglas is excited at the prospects for building income-generating skills and poverty reduction. “My high point, of course, would be the built capacities of the group and the community as well as their proven commitment to become stewards of the environment,” she said.

“In the end, we got what we came for. The community wins. Biodiversity and the forest are set to win, too.”