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Story Publication logo February 19, 2018

In Rural India, Wild Honey Farmers Are Using Bees to Fight Terrorism


Women constitute the bulk of the workforce on tea plantations, responsible for plucking up to 40 kilograms a day per person in peak season. Tea plucking runs in families; when a daughter is of age (generally 18 or older), she is invited to pluck on the farms with her mother. Image by Esha Chhabra. India, 2017.

A country that was once the prized gem of the Green Revolution, feeding the subcontinent and...

“Stop killing the bees and biodiversity,” says Heavenly Organics co-founder Amit Hooda. “And we live in harmony with each other–so stop killing one another. There are other ways to make money.”  Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.
“Stop killing the bees and biodiversity,” says Heavenly Organics co-founder Amit Hooda. “And we live in harmony with each other–so stop killing one another. There are other ways to make money.” Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.

Much of the world's honey is contaminated with pesticides. In a recent study, 200 honey samples from around the world were examined for neonicotinoid insecticides; 75 per cent of them tested positive. For Amit Hooda, co-founder of Heavenly Organics, this isn't new information. His belief? That harvesting wild honey isn't just the answer to pesticide, insecticide and antibiotic-free honey, but also a way of rebuilding conflict zones. It's a way of thinking that he hopes can not only transform community, but the entire global food industry.

"Food can have such a positive impact on the world, creating peace between conflict communities, giving people work, and producing something nourishing for humankind," says Amit, who has been testing his batches of wild-harvested organic honey for antibiotics and pesticides for ten years. "But we've turned food into a profiteering venture and it's not working. It hasn't been working for a while."

Amit, an Indian-born American entrepreneur, started Heavenly Organics in 2005 with his father, Dr. Ishwar Singh Hooda, an agronomist who raised his family in the agricultural belt of India, Punjab, in the 1980s. Despite turmoil by local Maoist insurgents in the region at the time, communities in Punjab were able to prosper because they had fertile land, and means to make a living. "A life of violence wasn't so appealing because they had other ways of making a living," Amit says.

Using that mindset, the duo set out to use food, particularly honey, as a vehicle to transform conflict-ridden communities in the world, starting with their native India. While Amit is in Iowa, overseeing the sales, marketing, and distribution of Heavenly Organics' honey jars, Ishwar, at 69, is busy visiting rugged corners of the country where conflict has deteriorated lives and local economies: this includes the Indo-Pakistani border, the central forests of India, and the Indo-Nepal-Tibet border where displaced populations reside.

The two men are complementary partners in business: Ishwar is a shrewd driver on India's manic roads, weaving through traffic, while lecturing on regenerative agricultural practices. His son, a mix of East and West, quickly translates his father's learnings into pithy statements: "Basically, we've screwed up farming, food, and our environment," Amit says on a road trip to visit their honey collectors.

"Think about it. Bees are the only creature that selflessly add so much value to the environment. Every single activity they do produces positive results. I would love it if I were like that, if humans in general were like that," he jokes. "But we're not."

The Peace Collectors

Heavenly Organics' honey comes from central India, namely Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, three states that have been plagued with Naxalite, or local communist, insurgencies on and off for the past five decades. Last year, an ambush by 300 Maoists was the largest insurgency since 2010 in Chhattisgarh. There are routine news reports of trucks being burned on the roads, and guards being killed. The ongoing conflict has displaced tribal communities and affected village life. Across India, an estimated 350,000 people have been displaced due to the insurgencies. Between 2002 and 2006, an estimated 300,000 people were killed.

"Forget diplomats, you need to make money," says Ishwar as we pass a line of Border Security Forces, or BSF, when entering the jungle. "You have to think beyond the politics. We target young men because that's who the Maoists target as well. They're vulnerable to money. Aren't we all?" Amit points out the BSF officers again on the side of the road. "Think about it. These guys are in the middle of the country policing a forest area, not on the border."

Instead of state or local police, guarding the area, India's border security forces are dispersed throughout this central belt to help keep peace. Though the problem is not isolated to one area in India, the Hoodas have decided to hone in on honey in these three Indian states because tribal populations here already harvested it for their own use. And, of course, the Hoodas felt they could create a global market for the organic honey.

Ishwar and Amit Hooda want to expand their sustainable, conflict-free farming business beyond India to countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan. Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.<br />
Ishwar and Amit Hooda want to expand their sustainable, conflict-free farming business beyond India to countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan. Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.

In 2004, they started to visit the conflict areas, building relationships with local populations. Even if their intentions were noble, they didn't receive a warm welcome, recalls Amit: "In the beginning, we couldn't get a soul to work with us."

Though a petite, soft-spoken man, Ishwar persisted, holding community sessions for anyone who would be interested, sharing his ideas of how wild honey could be collected peacefully, without using smoke, from the native neem trees, and sold globally to health-conscious customers, seeking a chemical-free product. The men could do the harvesting and the women could forgo laborious work in the fields; instead, they could clean the honey their husbands brought home before selling it to Heavenly Organics.

Many were skeptical. But a few, like Kuvarshing Pandhare, decided to give it a go. He's been a honey harvester for Heavenly Organics since the company's beginning. He used to participate in the Naxalite activities (though he refuses to divulge details). Now, he's only focused on honey: "These bees are like my kids. I love them," he says, dressed in a cotton t-shirt and a bee suit. 

He quickly ascends the trees to harvest honey from a wild hive. His technique, he says, hanging from the top of the neem tree, has improved, thanks to the training from the Hoodas. When Ishwar started spending time with the indigenous population, he realised they had a problem: the men would harvest honey without bee suits, just skirting up trees in a tank top and a loin cloth. They used smoke to scare the bees, and in the process, accidentally started forest fires since the floor of the forest was covered in dried leaves. 

The challenges didn't stop there. Some harvesters would cut off the whole hive from the branch, instead of just extracting a slice of the honeycomb and enabling the bees to rebuild on the same hive. Others would chop down the entire tree to attain the hive.

Kuvarshing Pandhare has been harvesting for Heavenly Organics since the company was founded in 2005. He now earns around 2 lakh Rupees ($3000) a month. Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.
Kuvarshing Pandhare has been harvesting for Heavenly Organics since the company was founded in 2005. He now earns around 2 lakh Rupees ($3000) a month. Image by Mike Leibowitz. India, 2017.

A lifelong lover of sustainable agriculture, Ishwar was perturbed by these techniques. Being a tenacious man, he didn't give up. Instead, Heavenly Organics offered free training and incentivized a sustainable harvest. "We set limits like 1,000 kilos for each family at first," he explains. And if they stay with us longer, if they follow our morale where they don't destroy the hive and all those things, then they are able to make more money by collecting more honey."

Pandhare benefited from the system. "Before I had zero, literally zero. I just did whatever work came my way. But now I can make almost 2 lakh Rupees (£2,100) in one month," he says. And he isn't alone. Rajender Prakash Bairagi, a farmer, also works with Heavenly Organics. He recalls his early years with the company nearly a decade ago: "People in the village used to question the work. They were not sure about it, or the people running it. Now, they've seen me grow, have a house, food to eat, and they want to participate." 

Today, these men are referred to as "peace collectors" by the Hoodas. Heavenly Organics works with over 650 families in conflict areas in India; that number is expected to go up to 1,000 families by the end of 2018.

A Global Model

The vision, however, is much bigger. The Hoodas want to employ 10,000 families, and expand beyond India. They're looking at other conflict-hit countries such as Afghanistan and Sudan. There, the product may or may not be honey, Amit says. "We want it to be something that the local population is already familiar with and is suitable for the region." For neighboring Afghanistan, he explains, it could be converting opium farmers to almond growers. In South Sudan, it could be harvesting acacia honey, which is commonly found in the southern part of the country.

Amit has taken this idea to retailers in the US, such as Whole Foods, where his product sells. "Imagine an aisle where all the brands are sourcing ingredients from conflict areas of the world and bringing peace through work." It's a business model that's catching on. Theo Chocolate, a Seattle-based chocolate brand, sources 70 per cent of their cocoa from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered terribly from conflict and weak governance. Theo started the collaboration with cocoa farmers in 2010 and now buys from over 4,000 farmers in the country. Dr. Bronner's, known for its all-purpose Castile soap, sources olive oil from Canaan Fair Trade, a Palestinian company in the West Bank, which works with 1,700 smallholder olive farmers in the area and promotes a peaceful relationship with Israeli neighbours.

According to the World Bank, 40 per cent of former conflict zones return to a state of conflict within a decade, if dependent just on peace talks. Amit says that's because there is not enough focus on creating jobs. "I've always believed, and I've seen it happen, that the only way you can achieve peace in an area is by creating a long-term ethical economy. Without economy, you can never have peace. People in conflict areas, they don't need charity money, what they need is a job."

But building Heavenly Organics was not easy. Father and son put in more than $300,000 (£212,000) of their own money before seeing returns and the first five years resulted in substantial losses while they figured out the complex supply chain. But now the company is growing positively, Amit says, with the product available in more than 5,000 stores in four countries: the US, UK, Japan, and Canada. But more than growth figures, the Hoodas are keen to flaunt their bee mathematics: according to Amit, the company harvests from over 23,000 hives, protecting over 500 million bees in the forests and jungles of India.

The tagline of the company is "one sweet world." Amit sums up the reasoning behind it: "One, we live in harmony with the environment–so stop killing the bees and biodiversity. And two, we live in harmony with each other–so stop killing one another. There are other ways to make money. Don't take the shortcut," he says. And as dusk approaches, father and son start the long drive out of the jungle to their campsite for the night.






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