Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited press release from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighting a region in the French-speaking Caribbean republic of Haiti that has withstood, in some way, the economic impact of the coronavirus.
The commune of Bonbon lies at the westernmost tip of the island of Haiti. It shares its name with the traditional Haitian sweet, ‘bonbon’, a cake made with dark sugarcane syrup and sweet spices. And thanks to 44-year-old Hilarion Célestin and a group of local beekeepers, the area is now well-known for another kind of sweet too: honey.
Growing up in Bonbon, a rural area of the island, bordered by the luscious, wild beaches typical of the Caribbean region, Hilarion learnt his trade at an early age. Whilst many of his peers grew up in agricultural families — the area is known for both fishing and production of local crops such as bananas, cassava and plantains — Hilarion grew up amongst beehives. Over the past few years, the area’s reputation for honey production has continued to grow, and now for many Haitian residents, the town of Bonbon is synonymous with the sweet, sticky syrup.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic spelled disaster for the island in many ways. The impact on health and the medical system was the first enormous challenge, but the economic impact was a close second. Many businesses ground to a halt and agricultural work decreased, as many farmers were required to stay home because of the containment measures implemented by the Haitian Government.
The honey business was one of the very few exceptions to this rule. For Hilarion and the 30 other local beekeepers in the Bonbon Beekeepers Association, they noticed that there was marked increase in demand for their honey, due to its wide use in traditional Haitian medicine.
Even if demand wasn’t the problem, the pandemic, of course, brought other challenges. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Hilarion had been selling his honey to customers in the Arrondissement of Jérémie and the capital of Port-au-Prince, but due to the containment measures and restrictions on movement, he found himself having to adjust his practices.
“To fully respect the measures to mitigate the risks of spreading the virus, we had to adapt and reinvent our production and marketing techniques. I continue to produce while applying the preventive hygiene rules recommended by the Ministry of Public Health and Population. When I receive clients, I do not meet more than two people at a time, establishing a 1.5-metre distance between them and me,” he explains.
Hilarion is fully committed to raising awareness in his community about the risks of coronavirus, as well as about the good habits to adopt in order to protect themselves.
“As the coordinator of the Bonbon Beekeepers Association, I am committed to helping my community members to take the necessary actions to protect themselves and their families. I go door-to-door regularly, and I sometimes call the association’s members on the phone to make sure that they are aware of the importance of respecting the precautionary measures to combat the coronavirus, including systematic hand washing, wearing masks, social distancing and quarantining,” he explains.
Hilarion’s Beekeepers Association was set up a couple of years ago with the support of FAO and the Haitian Ministry of Environment as part of the Action Against Desertification (AAD) project. The Bonbon Beekeepers Association collaborates with the neighbouring Abricots Beekeepers Association, as well as other groups of beekeepers in the Department of Grand’Anse, to promote beekeeping production in the area and market their honey under a common label.
FAO’s AAD project, which is funded by the European Union, has been supporting Hilarion and his fellow beekeepers in the area since 2016. By supporting beekeeping livelihoods, the project seeks to increase incomes for this work, while encouraging protection of natural resources and enhancing pollination. The project supplied 600 modern beehives to local beekeeping organisations and provided training in modern beekeeping techniques, enabling the beekeepers to improve their production and marketing strategies and increase their profits.
With his 62 traditional beehives, Hilarion used to have a production capacity of 50 gallons of honey per year. Now, with the 10 modern beehives he received from FAO, he harvests nearly 400 gallons per year. When Hilarion speaks about this improvement, it is obvious that he is passionate about his livelihood and proud of how far he has come.
“Thanks to the FAO training, we are actually able to detect pathologies and bee predators at an early stage, and we have now the means to control them,” Hilarion explains. “We can also select and keep colonies adapted to local environmental constraints, produce quality queens, assess the queens to see if they are hygienic, resistant and productive, and manage the beehive’s viability with improved techniques.”
Now, Hilarion is playing a waiting game until Haiti’s COVID-19 containment measures are lifted. He is already eager to set new plans in motion: he wants to strengthen the organisation of this beekeepers’ association to improve the collection, packaging and marketing of the honey, push it out further into local and national markets, and continue to increase his production with the knowledge he gained from the AAD project training. These are uncertain times for Haiti and many other countries around the world — but for the Haitian honey sector, there may well be a bright future.