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Wild honey of the Wichi people: a treasure to be discovered

In the community of Larguero, in the Chaco Salteño, a group of indigenous beekeepers are raising the profile of a unique wild honey

The indigenous Wichi people have always lived in the arid area of central Chaco, a region characterized by little rainfall for much of the year and heavy downpours in November.

One of the most important products for the community is honey gathered from wild bees, known in the indigenous language as twatsaj and which live in hollow trees. Two months after the start of the flowering season in the middle of August, honey starts to accumulate in the wild hives. The best time for harvesting it is in November, when the rains start. The men observe the bees’ activity and identify the tree hollow trunks or branches where the honey can be found. As they collect it, they leave some for the colonies to feed on. They extract the honey and wax together, then press the mixture to separate out the honey. Finally, the honey is filtered to remove impurities, passing it three times through a cloth, before being packaged for sale.

The Presidium was started with the involvement of Larguero, a community of around 50 people from the Wichi ethnic group, not far from the Pilcomayo River and the border region between Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Seventy per cent of the Presidium honey harvesters are young people. They have been collecting and selling the honey for over ten years, though they are not formally organized. They recently started promoting their product outside the production area, primarily in Buenos Aires, in some fair-trade shops and through sustainable food-buying groups.

The Presidium also supports the work of women in the community, who gather wild fruit from many different tree species, including carob, chañar, mistol, white quebracho, silk floss tree, palo santo and chaguar. This fruit is then dried and ground to make highly nutritious flavored flours.

Slow Food recently interviewed Juan Ignacio Pearson, an agricultural engineer and coordinator of the Wichi Wild Honey Presidium, and Marcela Biglia, an agricultural engineer specializing in organic production and certification and Presidium collaborator, who shared with us their experience and what they have learned from the community during the development of the Presidium.

What does the community aim to achieve with the creation of the Presidium?
The aim of the Presidium is to support the harvesting of Wichi wild honey, a unique honey that comes from wild hives, in which their bees live. In addition, the Presidium was started with the aim of improving local consumption, improving the production and commercial chain of the honey and, in general terms, promoting the products of the Indigenous Communities, such as carob flour made by the women of the Presidium, and preserving and raising the profile of the activity of collecting wild honey, with its traditional collection techniques passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years.

What does this product represent for the indigenous community?
Wild honey is vital for the Wichi people, as it is directly linked to their culture, their knowledge and their bond with the land. Therein lies its enormous value, in that collection of the honey is an activity in which the value of ancestral Wichi knowledge is demonstrated and, at the same time, the Community’s ownership of its lands is reaffirmed. In addition, the honey has a unique and unmistakable taste, closely linked to the gastronomic memory of the region. This is due to the combination of flowers that the bees visit to produce honey, and that grow specifically on the land of the Community. It also plays an important role in dietary balance, as honey, along with fish, animals and fruits from the forest are part of the sustenance of life.

Can you tell us about this history of this product?
Honey has always been a very appealing foodstuff for the Community. Since the time of the ancient Wichi, many different types of honey and pollen (or flowers as we say) have been collected from stingless bees (or Meliponidae), such as Wos Chalas, Wejñat, No´tewos and Wosa, which make their hives in hollow trees. Stingless bees also include the Nezla, which make hives underground. Stingless wasps, which hang their hives from the branches of trees such as the Wo´na or No´walhek, also make truly delicious honey, which is also eaten. All these honeys are eaten at present, but it is only possible to sell bee honey as it is produced in greater volumes. Wasp honey is only collected for personal consumption.

How do you feel within the Slow Food network and what does it mean to you to be part of a global network?
This is the first experience of connecting with networks outside our community, so it is all new and very exciting. This year, two young people enrolled in the Indigenous Terra Madre in Mexico, which is something we thought would take us many years. Generally speaking, we do not feel comfortable leaving where we live, but these opportunities for cooperation that we have created with Slow Food have established the necessary connections to open up and show off our land and to encourage us to explore new areas. The excitement of establishing links with other groups of Indigenous Communities, or with people who produce and consume healthy food has been incredible. This is a breakthrough brought about by being part of the global network.

Another experience was being contacted from Switzerland by people interested in buying honey collected from our lands. Selling in these conditions creates great confidence and adds value to the product from our land.

We are seeing how our food is valued and inevitably affects how we value it ourselves.

What does selling their honey mean to the beekeepers?
The possibility of the honey we collect being sold at a fair price is very important. The work it represents for our population, its collection and processing, can allow young people in our community to derive a decent and fair income from this activity. It is important that Tsatotajcontinues to grow, both for the future of the young people and to strengthen issues related to our culture. We are seeing great interest in our culture in other parts of the world, which is bringing about a change as we are beginning to see as a community that our product deserves to be defended and that it can be taken to markets that value it.

Why is the kind of endurance, through food, important in your community? 
A central part of living well for us (Wichi) is to be able to continue going out to campear, a local colloquial term which means to walk across our land looking for food. There is a great deal of knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation about information about the countryside. There is a great deal of knowledge and a link with the land, our trees and our waters. This link is what guarantees tranquility and peace, and the result is that we have a “Good Life”. That is why supporting honey collection reaffirms us as the Wichi people, especially in the face of the cultural homogenization that globalization represents. Defending honey collection is also defending our traditional culture, knowing how to recognize one’s own life and the ownership of the forest and oneself too, since this ownership is what gives us our identity.

The Wichi Wild Honey Slow Food Presidium is supported by the IFAD through a project that aims to enable communities to defend and promote their gastronomic heritage. This article was originally published on slowfood.com