Wild honey of the Wichi people
Wild honey of the Wichi people
A treasure to be discovered
The indigenous Wichi community live in the arid area of the Chaco Salteño* in Argentina, a region with little annual rainfall except for heavy downpours in November.
One of the most important products for the community is honey gathered from twatsaj (wild bees) living in hollow trees. Two months after the start of the flowering season in mid-August, honey starts to accumulate and the best time for harvesting is November when the rains begin. The men observe the bees’ activity to identify the trees where honey can be found. During collection some honey is left for the colonies to feed on. The honey and wax mixture is pressed to separate out the honey, which is then filtered three times through cloth, to remove impurities, before being packaged for sale.
The Wichi Wild Honey Presidium was started with the involvement of Larguero, a community of about 50 Wichi people not far from the Pilcomayo River and the border region between Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. 70% of Presidium honey harvesters are young people and have been collecting and selling the honey for over 10 years. Although not formally organised they recently started promoting their product outside the collection area and primarily in Buenos Aires, in 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 species to make highly nutritious and flavoured flours.
Slow Food interviewed Juan Ignacio Pearson, an agricultural engineer and Coordinator of the Wichi Wild Honey Presidium, and Marcela Biglia, an agricultural engineer specialising in organic production and certification, and a Presidium Collaborator:
What does the community aim to achieve with the Presidium?
The Presidium supports the harvesting of Wichi wild honey using traditional collection techniques passed between generations for thousands of years. It aims to raise the profile, improve local consumption and production, and the commercial supply chain of the honey.
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. The honey has a unique and unmistakable taste, closely linked to the gastronomic memory of the region and plays an important role in dietary balance. This is due to the combination of flowers that the bees visit to produce the honey and that grow specifically on the land of the Community. Throughout history the Wichi People have also collected honey from stingless bees (Meliponidae): Wos Chalas, Wejñat, No´tewos and Wosa (these species nest in hollow trees) and Nezla which nest 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, however it is possible to sell only honey bee honey as it is produced in greater volumes. Wasp honey is only collected for personal consumption.
How do you feel to be within the Slow Food network and 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 exciting. In 2019 two young people enrolled in the Indigenous Terra Madre in Mexico, which is something we thought would take us many years. We do not feel comfortable leaving where we live, but these opportunities for co-operation with Slow Food encourage us to explore new areas. The excitement of establishing links with other groups of Indigenous Communities, and people who produce and consume healthy food has been incredible. We have been contacted by an organisation in Switzerland interested in buying honey collected from our lands. Selling in these conditions creates confidence and adds value to our products.
What does selling their honey mean to the beekeepers?
The possibility of selling our honey 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. It is important that Tsatotaj continues 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 change as our community realises 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 core part of Wichi is to continue going out to campear, which means to walk across our land looking for food. There is a great deal of knowledge that is passed on between generations about the countryside, and the links with our land, trees and the waters. This link guarantees tranquillity 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 homogenisation that globalisation brings. Defending honey collection is also defending our traditional culture, knowing how to recognise one’s own life and the ownership of the forest and oneself too, since this ownership is what gives us our identity.
* The Chaco Salteño is part of the Great American Chaco, the second largest tropical forest in the American continent after the Amazon. The forest extends over Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and a small part of Brazil.
The Wichi Wild Honey Slow Food Presidium is supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, through a project that aims to enable communities to defend and promote their gastronomic heritage. See more at www.slowfood.com
Save bees and farmers
Slow Food has joined a Europe-wide campaign aiming to ban pesticides, transform agriculture, save bees and conserve nature. In January, Slow Food along with partner organisations presented the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Save Bees and Farmers by collecting signatures at the Wir Haben Es Satt! (We are fed up!) demonstration in Berlin, Germany.