Under an Amazonian canopy of guava and Xylopia trees, Neida Pereira lifts the lid of a beehive, gently lowers an unprotected hand into the swarm, and smiles as she lifts it out unscathed but covered in pollinators and honey.
For the 49-year-old educator and environmentalist, the stingless Amazonian insects are the greatest ally she has found in a decades-long campaign to halt the destruction of the rainforest and improve the livelihoods of its people.
“Bees are everything to me. They help me to protect the forest. They help the trees to stand tall, to produce fruit and to be strong,” she says, tears welling. “The bees are much more important than me for the environment.”
Pereira speaks not just from the heart, but from experience. The beekeeper was born in a remote forest community and has spent her life working for the training network, Casa Familiar Rural, in remote and threatened regions of Pará state in the north of Brazil.
For her, Amazonian beehives are not just a hub of pollination, they are also the most economically viable alternative to the environmentally destructive traditions of slash-and-burn agriculture and cattle ranching.
To have any chance of resisting soy plantations and mining companies, Pereira says local people need higher living standards, and an incentive to maintain the forest rather than cut it down. Beekeeping ticks all these boxes.
The community here in the Gleba Lago Grande settlement is remote and until recently largely forgotten. Ownership of close to a sixth of the 300,000 hectare area is disputed between residents, land grabbers and distant property speculators. Local residents want the area to be classified as an extractive reserve, which would give protected status to them and the forest.
Satellite images show strong forest cover in the area. But pressures are growing. The US mining conglomerate Alcoa is exploring bauxite deposits in the region. Emboldened by the rightwing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, there has been an increase in illegal logging, fishing and hunting. The head of the residents’ association, Antonio Andrade, has received death threats for trying to stop this.
“People ask me what right I have to tell them not to take from the forest and the river. I reply that I don’t do this for myself, I do it for future generations,” Andrade says. “Without us, the majority of the forest would be gone.” His T-shirt is emblazoned with an image of the murdered nun and environmental activist, Dorothy Stang, and her words, “The end of the forest is the end of our life.”
Local people need better economic prospects, but according to the destructive logic of the past few decades, that means burning the forest and clearing the land for cattle or monocultures. But there is increasing interest in alternatives, which is where Pereira and the bees come in.
With investment from the Global Greengrants Fund – one of the Guardian and Observer’s 2019 appeal charities – and its Brazilian partner CASA Socio-Environmental Fund, the region’s first beekeeping business opened in November at an agri-ecological training centre in the forest.
In terms of land, labour and materials, the costs of beekeeping are minimal and the returns potentially lucrative. Showing the first pots of honey and pollen, Pereira estimates that each hive can generate 800 reais (£145 ) in six months. Multiply that by 40 and the returns on a fifth of a hectare of forested land are more than 30 times higher than they would be from the usual backbreaking economic activity of growing manioc (Cassava) on land cleared by fire. “People don’t realise yet how much income they could get from this,” she says. “We have to spread the word.”
At this initial stage, the centre is only selling at local markets and relies largely on word of mouth. But they will apply for official certification so they can sell in markets. The main objective, however, is to demonstrate how Amazonian beekeeping works for local people, especially the young. Trainees come from across the region for courses lasting several days.
Other units include seed cultivation, soil protection, how to improve per-hectare yields with non-fire land preparation; low-intensity cattle rearing; and reforestation with Amazonian fruit trees, such as pineapple and banana. The Casa Famlliar Rural centre aims to build a new dormitory and plans to create a nursery so that students can take saplings back with them, as well as, hopefully, bees. In the future, they would like to set up a new centre in one of the border areas most threatened by miners and loggers.
“We want this to set an example for the region and the world,” said one of the founders of the centre, Paulo Brasil.
Pereira says her biggest hope for the future is education. “We need to show the young that there is a different way to live with the forest. But of all the courses we teach, it’s the bees that I love the most. They are so beautiful. I can watch them all day.”
Please donate to our appeal here