A Sweet and Potent Harvest

For the Maijuna of the Peruvian Amazon, harvesting honey from stingless bees is bringing prosperity and empowerment. Local beekeeping might also help preserve a vast ancestral forest.

Woman using a syringe to extract honey from tree-trunk hive.
Tarkis Ríos Ushiñahua harvesting honey from stingless bees in a tree-trunk hive, at her home in Puerto Huamán in the Peruvian Amazon, 2019. [Hannah Hutchinson]

When Tarkis Ríos Ushiñahua collects honey from one of her beehives, she wears no protective clothing and uses just one tool, a large plastic syringe. 1 As she lifts the lid from the wooden box housing the hive, the bees swarm. They buzz around her face, land on her back, and settle in strands of her straight black hair, but they do no harm — these bees are stingless.

The slender tip of Ríos Ushiñahua’s syringe fits neatly inside the hive’s honeypots, brownish, papery-looking pouches that the bees have fashioned from wax and plant resins. Ríos Ushiñahua pulls the syringe’s plunger to move a tablespoon or so of honey from each honeypot into a clear glass jar. Her method is clean and efficient. In comparison to the viscous, sticky goo produced by Apis mellifera, the aggressive, stinger-toting honeybees native to Europe, stingless bee honey is thin, even watery.

The honeybees buzz around her face, land on her back, and settle in strands of her  hair. But they do no harm — these bees are stingless.

Apis mellifera supply nearly all commercial honey in the Global North, to the degree that the word “honey” is nearly synonymous with a food that is thick and golden, cloying and dense. Stingless bee honey, on the other hand — produced by bees of the Meliponini tribe, labeled “meliponines” by Western science — is a distinctly different substance. The honey’s color ranges from pale amber to deep saffron to dusky bluish green, though it can also be as clear as water. The flavor profile is delicate, singular. Discerning palates compare the nuanced character of stingless bee honey to that of fine wine or artisanal whiskey. Sweetness is but a single note in a complex that can include citrus, caramel, nuts, smoke, salt, and even musty earth and sour fruit, each in unique combinations and at varying levels of intensity. As with single-origin cacao or coffee, the honey’s flavor is tied to the place where it was sourced, both through the species of bee — there are 550 different varieties of meliponines worldwide — and the surrounding flora.

Bee boxes on poles, each covered by a roof of corrugated metal, in a clearing in dense forest.
The bee yard of Loida Ríos Tamayo and Saúl Peterman Mosoline, 2021. [Enrique Redondo Navarro]

Woman and girl leaning over wooden bee box.
Tarkis Ríos Ushiñahua teaches her daughter to divide a hive, 2022. [Dylan Francis]

A 43-year-old mother of five, Ríos Ushiñahua is a member of the Maijuna Indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon. Stingless bees are culturally important to the Maijuna, and have been for countless generations. The Maijuna and other Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin consume the honey produced by stingless bees as part of their diet, and use it medicinally to treat respiratory illness, skin ailments, arthritis, and other maladies. 2 Fifteen different species have unique names in Máíhiki, the language still spoken by most elders, and the Maijuna have a sacred traditional dance that mimics the motions and sound of bees swarming near their hive: the dancers expand and contract in a cluster, as they shake palm leaves and chant in deep, droning voices. Maijuna elders have extensive traditional knowledge about where and how the bees build hives, the uses of their honey, wax, and resin, and how to distinguish the various species.

In recent years, however, the bees native to Maijuna lands have assumed a power even greater than Ríos Ushiñahua’s ancestors could have imagined. Maijuna beekeepers have begun to cultivate, harvest, and sell stingless bee honey, and the resultant income has transformative potential. There is a vast, ecologically intact rainforest landscape that sustains the Maijuna, physically and culturally; the tiny stingless bee may be key to protecting it.

Maijuna elders have extensive traditional knowledge about where bees build hives, uses of honey, wax, and resin, and how to distinguish among species.

Ríos Ushiñahua lives in Puerto Huamán, one of four Maijuna communities built on the banks of remote rivers that snake through dense old-growth rainforest in the northwest corner of the Amazon basin. And she is in the vanguard of Maijuna beekeepers. She learned the basics through a series of workshops organized by the Stingless Beekeeping Project, an initiative launched in 2015 by the American and Peruvian nongovernmental organization, OnePlanet, of which Michael Gilmore, coauthor of this article, is founder and president. 3 OnePlanet’s mission is to partner with Maijuna communities to build a more sustainable, empowered, and just future, and its programs include a variety of community-based initiatives in conservation and sustainable development. All OnePlanet’s projects are developed in partnership with the Federación de Comunidades Nativas Maijuna, or FECONAMAI, the Maijuna Indigenous federation. 4

Group of bare-chested men with dried palm fronds tied around their heads.
Maijuna men performing the traditional bee dance, 2022. [Brian Griffiths]

FECONAMAI formally binds the four Maijuna communities, and represents their interests in dealings with other entities, including the government and other Indigenous groups. FECONAMAI is a relatively young organization, and it was born during crisis. In the early 2000s, dishonest wildcat loggers, promising jobs and profits, duped some Maijuna leaders into granting them access to valuable trees growing throughout Maijuna ancestral lands. The result was catastrophe; the Maijuna never received the payment they were promised, but worse, the logging crews that camped in the forest hunted and fished so intensively they triggered a food-security crisis. FECONAMAI’s primary focus, when it was formed in 2004, was to coordinate resistance to the loggers. It took five years, until 2009, for the Maijuna to expel the interlopers from their land, which they accomplished not by legal maneuvering, but by putting their bodies in harm’s way. They physically blocked the rivers on which the loggers relied to transport timber downstream. This mode of resistance — dangerous, confrontational, and necessarily collective — drew upon and reinforced a sense of Maijuna solidarity, which was formalized in the creation of FECONAMAI.

The vast rainforest that sustains the Maijuna may be protected by the transformative power of income earned from honey.

Stories of egregious exploitation are all too common in the Amazon basin. People practicing their traditional lifeways face relentless pressure to grant access to outsiders seeking timber, oil, precious metals, game meat, fish, and other resources. Indigenous communities can be susceptible to dubious promises of economic gain. Poverty, lack of opportunity, and a long history of marginalization and structural racism have left many of these communities vulnerable to coercion. Exploiters not only promise money — the average Maijuna family meets World Bank criteria for extreme poverty — but use intimidation and violence with impunity. Those who do protect Indigenous land are sometimes murdered, and justice is rarely served; the assassination of Indigenous land protectors is a grim fact of life throughout Latin America. Jorge Pérez Rubio, president of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, Peru’s national federation of Amazonian Indigenous communities, announced in October 2022 that fifteen Indigenous leaders had been killed that year while trying to stop trespassers from illegally extracting resources. 5

Once the loggers were expelled from Maijuna lands, FECONAMAI began taking the necessary steps to prevent a similar situation from ever developing again. Between 2009 and 2015, FECONAMAI spearheaded an effort to secure protected status for Maijuna lands, which culminated in the establishment of the million-acre Área de Conservación Regional Maijuna-Kichwa, or ACRMK. 6 Working with the regional government, the Maijuna and their Indigenous Kichwa partners now have an official voice in all decisions related to the vast expanse of primary forest and wild rivers that encompasses the majority of Maijuna ancestral lands.

A second element of FECONAMAI’s strategy is to boost economic security. FECONAMAI’s officers, all democratically-elected Maijuna community leaders, understand that building sustainable sources of income will decrease the allure of hollow promises. The federation actively cultivates nonextractive income streams, working primarily with OnePlanet. OnePlanet collaborates with FECONAMAI on selecting and designing capacity-building projects, and then secures funding through private donations and foundation grants. The Stingless Beekeeping Project exemplifies OnePlanet and FECONAMAI’s partnership; beekeeping links income to land protection and cultural continuity. “[I]f [the Maijuna] wish to live in the forest as they always have … [and] keep their culture and traditions,” says Project Coordinator J. Carlos García Morales, “they need a sustainable economic resource that doesn’t damage the forest. That is what the bees can provide.” 7

Working with regional government, the Maijuna and their Indigenous Kichwa partners now have a voice in decisions related to their ancestral lands.

García Morales has more than a decade of experience teaching beekeeping to Indigenous people in Peru. For OnePlanet, he designed a series of how-to-workshops, through which Ríos Ushiñahua began to acquire her skills. The workshops taught her how to collect a wild forest beehive without destroying it, how to transport the hive to the yard outside her home, and how to create conditions conducive to happy honey-making: access to abundant flowers; protection from rain, sun, and excessive humidity; and an attentive beekeeper who guards against insect pests. Ants, phorid flies, termites, cockroaches, and robber bees can all decimate a hive in a matter of days; the day-to-day work of beekeeping involves inspecting the hives for early signs of infestation. Ríos Ushiñahua also learned how to build wooden boxes to house new hives, and how to use part of an existing colony to start a new one. Her beekeeping operation, which started with a single hive, now includes twelve.8 García Morales and Elizabeth Benson, OnePlanet’s Coordinator of Field Operations, help Ríos Ushiñahua harvest and bottle the exquisite honey twice a year, and transport it — to a tourist lodge and to the more distant city of Iquitos — where it’s sold for a handsome price. In the current arrangement, Ríos Ushiñahua earns one hundred percent of the proceeds, of which she pays 25 percent in dues to the Maijuna Beekeepers Association, to cover packaging and other overhead expenses. The remaining 75 percent is pocketed cash.

Two closeups of bees crawling around the entrance to a wild tree-trunk hive.
Stingless bees in box hive (left), and in a tree-trunk hive (right), 2019. [Brian Griffiths]

Hands with syringe filled with amber liquid, being extracted from a beehive in a cut-open tree trunk.
Harvesting stingless bee honey from a tree-trunk hive, 2019. [Brian Griffiths]

This money has changed Ríos Ushiñahua‘s life. Her husband controlled the family finances for most of their marriage, and regularly wasted scarce funds on alcohol. When Ríos Ushiñahua began earning her own income, their power dynamic shifted. Financially independent for the first time, Ríos Ushiñahua gave her husband a choice: quit drinking, or say goodbye to his wife and children. He opted to sober up and stay connected.

Indigenous families need cash to educate their children beyond sixth grade, to weather emergencies, and to buy goods the forest can’t supply.

Before Ríos Ushiñahua started working with bees, her family survived in much the same way as their relatives and neighbors in Maijuna lands, where the abundance of the forest contrasts sharply with the economic poverty. Most Maijuna people spend their days hunting game, fishing, gathering fruits and other useful forest products, and growing yuca and plantains on their farm plots. The land provides for most material needs, but families still depend on cash to weather medical emergencies, educate a child beyond sixth grade, and purchase essential items that the forest doesn’t supply: clothing, salt, batteries, fishing hooks, shotgun shells. The options for making money are few. Most family income is earned by young men, who either sell game and fish in the nearest town, or leave home for months at a time to work on logging crews or oil palm plantations. Women might cultivate extra yuca and plantains on their farm plots, or make handicrafts to sell.

Many of these tasks carry a degree of physical risk. Last year, a young Maijuna man, whose wife was pregnant with their first child, accidentally discharged his shotgun while hunting alone in the forest, and bled to death before he was found. Men are accustomed to climbing towering trees — for instance, to harvest aguaje fruit 30 meters in the air — and falls can be dire. Maijuna farm plots are ideal habitat for fer de lances and bushmasters, two of the most lethal snake species in the world. Everyone in Maijuna lands has been bitten or knows someone who got very sick, or died, from a snakebite, usually a bite they got while clearing weeds around their crops. “It’s always in the back of their minds,” said Benson, who lives full-time in Maijuna lands. “They go out to work each morning, and they know they might not come back.”

One of the great virtues of beekeeping is its safety. Beekeepers do their work at home, without venturing into fields or forest. “And the bees,” as Benson says, “don’t even sting.” The other chief virtue of beekeeping is its accessibility. Unlike working on an oil palm plantation, or climbing a 30-meter tree, just about anyone can do it. “The beauty of beekeeping,” according to Benson, “is that your gender doesn’t matter, and neither does your age. Our workshops are open to everyone.”  Attendees include not only women who need extra income, but middle-aged parents, elders, young people, and men who no longer have the strength or eyesight to hunt. Hives are kept close to their owners’ houses, and tending them becomes part of the domestic routine.

White-haired woman in blue t-shirt adjusts wooden beekeeping box, greenery in the background and bees flying around her face.
Marcelina Mógica Pacaya works with a box hive, 2021. [Enrique Redondo Navarro]

Woman opening wooden box placed on the ground, with two small girls looking on; dense greenery in the backround.
Juana Mosoline Ríos teaching her granddaughters to open a box hive, 2019. [Elizabeth Benson]

About 40 percent of participants in the beekeeping workshops are women and girls. For this group, beekeeping catalyzes uniquely important personal and social benefits. Like their counterparts in much of the developing world, Maijuna women and girls have long been constrained by a pernicious combination of poverty, lack of access to high-quality education, and established gender roles that position men as the chief breadwinners and ultimate authority figures of virtually every Maijuna household. Redressing such structural gender inequities is central to the work of sustainability — not just as a matter of fairness, but as a strategy for success. Research shows that the empowerment of women and girls correlates with a range of sustainability objectives, from alleviating poverty to slowing population growth to building resilient communities. 9 As the United Nations declared in their 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, “Gender equality … is a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” 10

Ríos Ushiñahua keeps her teenage daughter close when working with bees, teaching her skills that could lead to a more empowered, independent life.

Ríos Ushiñahua sees a pressing need to foster autonomy and self-determination in Maijuna girls. “A lot of girls here marry and have babies very young — at thirteen or fourteen years old,” she explains. “This is a problem. They are children who go straight from their parents’ house to their husband’s house, without becoming adults first.” Ríos Ushiñahua keeps her teenage daughter close when she’s working with her bees, teaching her skills that could foreseeably lead to a more empowered, independent life. Expert beekeeper Magnolia Machoa Ayambo has similarly prioritized teaching her eldest daughter, now eight years old. It’s not practical, Machoa Ayambo believes, to assume that her daughter’s future husband will be the sole breadwinner. “One day she will have a family of her own. She will need to make money.”

Machoa Ayambo has three other children, and lives in the Maijuna community of Sucusari. In January 2022, we visited Sucusari, and spent an afternoon with Machoa Ayambo and her husband, Ilder Pérez Pinedo. Also in attendance was a OnePlanet-led video team who are producing a series of instructional beekeeping videos that will be used by the Maijuna and shared with other Indigenous communities. 11 The plan was for all of us to observe Machoa Ayambo and Pérez Pinedo collecting a wild stingless beehive and bringing it back to their bee yard.

Left: Woman surrounded by dense palm trees with look of concentration on her face; right: Man with chainsaw cutting length from felled tree.
Left: Magnolia Machoa Ayambo listens for the humming of wild bees; right: Ilder Pérez Pinedo cuts a trunk hive out of a felled tree, 2022. [Elizabeth Benson]

The hive we hiked to was one that Machoa Ayambo had discovered a couple days earlier in the forest near their farm fields; she had heard the distinctive humming while she was gathering palm leaves for roof thatching. She led us to the spot and we paused to listen. The deep, steady buzzing was slightly muffled, like the hum of an electric fan in a nearby room. Machoa Ayambo pointed to the hive’s entrance, a plum-sized orifice about six meters up the trunk of a nearby tree. We watched as Pérez Pinedo grasped forest vines to hoist his compact, muscular body up to the hole. Dangling from the vine with one hand, he used the other to plug the entrance with clay he’d scooped from the forest floor. Then he scrambled back down and felled the tree with his chainsaw.

The hive has more value than the honey: with time, experienced beekeepers can turn a single wild colony into an unlimited number of box hives.

Before they became beekeepers, the couple’s next move would have been to cut the tree trunk open, rip out the hive, squeeze the honey into whatever container was convenient, and leave the remnants behind. But now they knew that the hive has more value than the honey: with time, experienced beekeepers can turn a single wild colony like this one into an unlimited number of boxed hives. 12 Once the tree was lying on the forest floor, Pérez Pinedo excised a meter-long section of trunk containing the hive cavity and strapped this hefty mass onto his back. We followed the couple on the three-kilometer walk out of the forest, across their fields, to the yard in front of their house. Here, Pérez Pinedo sawed a window into the trunk segment so that they could inspect the hive. Some of the honeypots and brood combs had been crushed by the fall, but the hive was mostly intact. As Machoa Ayambo narrated their process for the camera, she and Pérez Pinedo demonstrated how to carefully transfer the hive from the tree cavity into a snug and sturdy bee box, its new home.

Woman in yellow t-shirt examines beehive in cut segment of tree trunk in her yard.
Magnolia Machoa Ayambo works with a tree-trunk hive, 2022. [Brian Griffiths]

When we asked, later, if Machoa Ayambo enjoyed being filmed, she broke into a broad smile. “I loved being in the video,” she told us. “I still can’t believe it. In my whole life, I never imagined something like that happening to me.” Indeed, Machoa Ayambo initially had no interest when OnePlanet began offering beekeeping workshops in Sucusari in 2015. “Not for me,” she recalls thinking at the time. She changed her mind when she saw that some of her beekeeping neighbors were earning decent cash. Now she’s grown attached to her bees. She thinks the hives look pretty in her yard, and she enjoys their sound. Unlike cultivating yuca and plantains, she finds working with bees variable and stimulating, and she likes the challenge of expanding her operation; right now, Machoa Ayambo is plotting to grow her family’s collection from fifteen to 30 hives.

Once they have sufficient infrastructure, the Maijuna Beekeepers Association will handle all aspects of teaching, harvesting, and distribution.

Not long after our visit, Machoa Ayambo and Pérez Pinedo began training to work as promotores, part of the burgeoning infrastructure for Maijuna beekeeping. Promotores are a small group of experienced beekeepers who are paid to host workshops and mentor novice beekeepers in their community. 13 They’re hired and managed by the Maijuna Beekeepers Association, which was chartered in 2021 with five elected officers, and is supported with the dues paid by beekeepers. (Ríos Ushiñahua is the current vice president.) The association’s mandate is to establish beekeeping and honey sales as an integrated, self-sufficient system. Once the association has developed sufficient expertise and infrastructure to do all the teaching, troubleshooting, honey harvesting, and distributing themselves, OnePlanet’s Stingless Beekeeping Project will become superfluous. This is by design; OnePlanet and FECONAMAI created the Stingless Beekeeping Project as a bridging structure to build capacity. García Morales and Benson see their work as temporary, as do the Maijuna. According to Loida Ríos Tamayo, who with her family tends 38 hives in the community of Nueva Vida, “[García Morales and Benson] have taught us a lot. They’re nice. But it will be good when we don’t have to ask them for help and advice anymore.”

The Stingless Beekeeping Project’s planned obsolescence should be complete, or nearly so, by 2024. That date would have come sooner if not for setbacks caused by the pandemic. The early roll-out boded well. In 2019, four years after the project launched, 49 Maijuna families were tending 274 hives. These hives produced a total of 43 liters of honey, and an aggregate income of $2,700. The two top-earning families made $700 and $400, a substantial amount for any Maijuna family. The momentum between 2018 and 2019 was especially propulsive: honey production and income increased sixfold.

The pandemic paused all progress. Peru closed its borders in March 2020, and Benson, who is American, was evacuated. García Morales, who lives in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, kept his distance. Members of Maijuna communities face substantial geographical and societal barriers to accessing health care, and exposure to the virus would have been especially devastating. (OnePlanet and Morales gradually resumed contact beginning in September 2021, after the communities received their first Covid-19 vaccinations.) In the first phase of the pandemic, movement restrictions prohibited the Maijuna from accessing local markets themselves, and even after restrictions eased, substantial hurdles remained.


Before the pandemic, the primary buyers for Maijuna honey were international tourists traveling with Amazon Explorama Lodges, an ecotourism company that operates a lodge near the Sucusari community. Although many residents of Iquitos and the surrounding region purchase stingless bee honey, they’re accustomed to paying about ten dollars per liter for honey that is harvested destructively rather than sustainably; sold in containers that haven’t been properly cleaned; and often contaminated with wax, resin, and pollen. The Maijuna honey sold at Explorama was a premium version: pure, packed in small, sterilized glass jars, sustainably harvested, and priced at nearly $60 per liter. When the pandemic halted global tourism, Explorama suspended operations, and the market for Maijuna honey vanished. Admittedly, there were potential customers in Iquitos, where residents with higher incomes will pay more for a superior product. But reaching Iquitos from any of the Maijuna communities requires a long and expensive journey, and once there, the beekeepers had no way of connecting to buyers. When Maijuna beekeepers couldn’t sell their product for the price to which they were accustomed, production fell off; the 2020 harvest was fewer than nine liters, nearly an 80 percent decrease from the previous year.

It was a significant setback, and yet Maijuna beekeepers proved remarkably resilient. Duglas Ríos Vaca’s story is representative. Ríos Vaca is a leader in the Sucusari community and founding president of the Maijuna Beekeepers Association. Prior to the pandemic, he was one of the most accomplished beekeepers, tending a tidy bee yard with 45 hives. He took up bee work because he didn’t care much for hunting or fishing, and his family suffered when he left home for months at a time to earn income elsewhere. Beekeeping was challenging at first, even with the workshop support. “I made so many mistakes,” he told us, laughing. “I didn’t know what I was doing.” His missteps led to lost hives and diminished returns. But as he learned the ropes, his hive collection stabilized, and then grew, until honey sales became his family’s primary source of income. The work suited Ríos Vaca. He enjoyed building wooden bee boxes, and he appreciated the predictable returns on his labor. “Other guys, they’d go to the forest to hunt for a week, maybe two weeks, hoping to find animals and bring back meat to sell. Sometimes they’d succeed, but sometimes they’d come back with nothing. With my bees, I knew what to expect. If I took care of them, they would make good honey. They would reward me.”

Closeup of man's head and shoulders surrounded by bees in flight.
Duglas Ríos Vaca with his bees, 2022. [Dylan Francis]

Early in the pandemic, Ríos Vaca maintained his hives, but eventually, desperate for cash, he made the painful choice to leave his family and his bees for four months and live near the city of Pucallpa, working on an oil palm plantation. (His hives could have been tended by his son, Jermi Ríos Ríos, also a skilled beekeeper, but Ríos Ríos was away on a military deployment.) The money Ríos Vaca earned in Pucallpa saw the family through the worst of the pandemic, but when he returned home, in May of 2021, he found his hives destroyed by insect pests.

Ríos Vaca resolved to start over. The government was beginning to roll out Covid vaccines, and OnePlanet promised that the Stingless Beekeeping Project would resume operations before year’s end. Though Ríos Vaca’s hives were ravaged, the bee boxes he’d built could be reused, and he had the knowledge and skills to resurrect his operation. It took about six months until his bee yard was buzzing again. When Benson returned to Sucusari after her 20-month absence, she was astonished. She’d expected that the bee work would be back at “square one, or close to it,” and instead, Ríos Vaca was working two dozen new hives and eyeing an eventual goal of 100. For Ríos Vaca and other dedicated beekeepers, the work was a gesture of hope. “Talking to the folks who stayed with it,” Benson said, “I realized … they were thinking about after the pandemic, when life returned to normal. They saw beekeeping as part of their future.”

In 2021, 35 families were tending 218 hives; a year later, 41 families tended 300 hives. The most productive harvested more than $1,500 in honey.

The honey harvest of 2021 was a record-setting 48 liters. The harvest of 2022, still being tallied, is expected to be a bit less, due to unusually dry weather that limited the flowering of forest plants. The upside is that the harvest reflects the earnings of more Maijuna families. At the end of 2021, 35 families were tending a total of 218 hives; one year later, 41 families were tending 300 hives. The most ambitious of these families have turned their full attention to bees. In the six-month period between November 2021 and March 2022, even as he was rebuilding his collection of hives, Duglas Ríos Vaca earned over $750 from honey sales, more than the annual income of an average Maijuna family. During that same six-month period, the hives of Loida Ríos Tamayo and her husband Saúl produced double that — more than $1,500 in honey.

Woman examines a bee through a magnifying glass as a young boy looks over her shoulder.
Loida Ríos Tamayo examines a stingless bee specimen, 2022. [Elizabeth Benson]

Three jars of honey, one dark amber, one pale, one medium, each captioned "Miel Maijuna."
Maijuna stingless bee honey packaged to sell, 2022. [Brian Griffiths]

With the Stingless Beekeeping Project up and running again, the priority is standardizing systems for production, harvest, marketing, and distribution, and continuing to build the Maijuna Beekeepers Association’s management capacity. It’s clear from the pandemic experience that distribution and sales will be the linchpin of a fully Maijuna-run system. A single tourist lodge cannot comprise the entire market for Maijuna honey, and entering any other market poses a variety of travel-related challenges. OnePlanet has recently begun facilitating the sale of Maijuna honey to several retail outlets in Iquitos, and it’s going well. Demand is steady, at a price point the beekeepers expect and deserve. Eventually, these seasonal trips to Iquitos will be coordinated by the Maijuna Beekeepers Association.

Establishing a fully independent system of this sort requires mastering a profusion of logistical details. Who purchases the jars? How are the labels printed and affixed? What is the best way to transport honey to market? How are the beekeepers paid? How long do promotores hold their positions? Answering these questions can be complex, tedious work, but the stakes are high. The purpose of the Stingless Beekeeping Project is to reduce the appeal of offers such as those made by the wildcat loggers in the early 2000s — invasive, exploitative propositions that promise short-term economic gain but lead to ecological devastation and intensify cultural precarity. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of such proposals.

The beekeeping initiative aims to reduce the appeal of propositions for short-term gain that instead intensify ecological devastation and cultural precarity.

One in particular is of urgent concern. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications and others in the Peruvian government have for over a decade been pushing a mega-development project in Maijuna lands. The project entails construction of a 135-kilometer highway connecting the town of San Antonio del Estrecho on the Putumayo River, which forms Peru’s border with Colombia, and the village of Salvador on the Napo River. This road would not only cut through the heart of the ACRMK — the million-acre expanse of forest deemed “protected” in 2015 — but would be flanked on either side by a ten-kilometer-wide corridor of mostly oil palm plantations. From Salvador, the road would continue to Iquitos, creating a major new transport artery, and guaranteeing that a variety of problems will follow.

Map of green space with large red line bisecting it.
Maijuna lands, with proposed route for road and development corridor. [Brian Griffiths]

The ACRMK’s officially protected status counts for something, but not much. A loophole in the 2015 agreement that established the reserve gives the Peruvian government the right to relax restrictions if it deems a project to be in the national interest. Proponents argue that the highway would bring the Maijuna prosperity, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The incursions that follow the path of asphalt are at this point entirely predictable. Over the past five decades, new roads and development corridors in various parts of the Amazon basin have fragmented the forest, destroyed wildlife habitat, and granted easy access to opportunists eager to log, mine, poach game and fish, clear land for grazing, and set up homesteads. Road-building projects have proved ruinous for Indigenous groups whose traditional subsistence cultures are inextricably linked to ancestral forests. To cite an example from the southern Peruvian Amazon, the Interoceanic Highway, completed in 2011, has had a dramatic impact on the ancestral lands of several Indigenous groups in the Madre de Dios region. This road has spurred illicit and uncontrolled land grabs as well as massive deforestation. Especially damaging are the gold miners who illegally raze thousands of acres of rainforest each year, and use mercury in their extraction process, poisoning the rivers on which Indigenous communities depend. 14

The proposed road would  facilitate passage for interlopers and strip the Maijuna of their sovereign right to control what happens on their lands.

Currently, rivers are the only means of accessing the heart of the ACRMK. The Maijuna communities situated on these rivers are gatekeepers; it is not possible to travel into the interior of the ACRMK without Maijuna permission. A road would change the calculus completely, facilitating passage for any number of interlopers, and stripping the Maijuna of their sovereign right to monitor and control what happens on their lands. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has never consulted the Maijuna about the highway, despite a law requiring prior consultation of communities affected by major infrastructure projects. In 2020, the Maijuna and their Kichwa allies issued an official position statement declaring their opposition to the road, and arguing that a protected ACRMK must be a roadless ACRMK. 15 The Maijuna, Kichwa, and other Indigenous allies spent years pressing for a meeting with the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, which was eventually convened in October of 2022. An Indigenous delegation, led by the Maijuna, travelled to Lima to address a variety of government officials and other stakeholders, and adamantly state their opposition. The exchange was sometimes contentious, and its effect is not yet clear.

Child seated in a boat with two jars of honey and a bunch of green bananas.
Duglas Ríos Vaca’s son, with the family taking honey to market by boat, 2022. [Jon Cox]

The value of a roadless ACRMK extends well beyond the boundaries of Maijuna lands. Dr. Mark Bowler, a tropical ecologist at the University of Suffolk who has conducted extensive field research in the reserve, explains what’s at stake: a genuine biodiversity hotspot that is also a carbon sink of global significance. “The ACRMK is in the middle of a corridor of rainforest stretching through Peru from Ecuador to Brazil. Because this corridor is separated by the Napo and Putumayo Rivers on either side, it has a unique community of species found nowhere else. This is one of the world’s great wilderness areas, and damage to it would lead to significant biodiversity loss.” 16 Moreover, the region’s ecologically intact old-growth forests and palm swamps make it one of the densest carbon stores on the planet. The ACRMK plays a pivotal role in maintaining an immense carbon load in northern Peru. “The loss of the ACRMK,” Bowler warns, “would open the region up to expanding forest degradation, and associated ‘edge effects’ that increase the risk of forest fires — all leading to the release of carbon.” In 2021, 145 countries, including Peru and the United States, signed a pledge to curb deforestation in conjunction with COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. According to Bowler, the goals of COP26 “can only be achieved if the integrity of the ACRMK is maintained.” 17

Stingless bees are the humming animal engine of a program that protects the planet, increases prosperity, and improves people’s lives.

If FECONAMAI and OnePlanet have correctly identified sustainable income as the keystone of Maijuna resistance, honey will make it possible for Maijuna communities to protect their ancestral rainforest, to the benefit of all. Stingless bees are the humming animal engine of a program that exemplifies what sustainability advocates call a triple bottom line, or “three P” initiative: one that protects the planet, increases prosperity, and improves people’s lives. The impact of Maijuna beekeeping unfolds in all directions. Income from honey alleviates the most deleterious effects of poverty, provides Maijuna girls and women new opportunities for autonomy and empowerment, and strengthens familial relationships by obviating the need for husbands and fathers to leave home for months at a time. Even more impressively, beekeeping can help preserve the immense biodiversity and carbon capacity of Maijuna ancestral forests, a boon to the entire planet. And there is no reason to think the program isn’t scalable. The market for premium Maijuna honey — delicious, healing, inimitable — remains largely untapped.

Maijuna beekeepers are creating a new and multifaceted form of wealth. Tarkis Ríos Ushiñahua used to spend hours in her fields cultivating extra produce to sell at market, but now she’s given that up. “I don’t bother with yuca and plantains anymore. I concentrate on my bees,” she said, flashing a canny smile. “The bees are my bank.”

Authors' Note

For more information on the Maijuna and their fight to protect their ancestral lands and traditional culture, watch Guardians of the Forest, a documentary film produced by OnePlanet. If you wish to express opposition to the road project, please sign this petition.

  1. We’ve chosen in this context to follow the colloquial English convention of using the word “hive” to describe any bee colony, whether in the wild, in a tree-trunk segment collected from the forest, or in a human-made structure. We also use the simple term “bee yard” to describe a collection of hives. The technical term for such a collection of hives for stingless bees (or meliponines) is meliponario.
  2. For more on how stingless bee honey is used in traditional medicine, and how its antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties might be adapted to new pharmaceutical applications, see Douglas Main, “These Stingless Bees Make Medicinal Honey. Some Call it a ‘Miracle Liquid,’” National Geographic, April 1, 2022.
  3. This OnePlanet project was implemented with the assistance of the Peruvian NGO Asociación La Restinga, which supports the self-empowerment of Amazonian communities.
  4. Gilmore collects no salary for his position, and all OnePlanet’s work is supported by individual donations and foundation grants.
  5. Jorge Pérez Rubio provided this information during prepared remarks he gave during a panel discussion following a screening of the documentary film Guardians of the Forest (2021), which chronicles the Maijuna’s fight to protect their ancestral lands and traditional culture. The event took place at the Peruvian Ministry of Culture in Lima on October 26, 2022.
  6. See Peru Ministry of the Environment, “Establecen área de conservación regional Maijuna Kichwa, ubicada en el departamento de Loreto,” Decreto Supremo No. 008-2015, June 17, 2015.
  7. All quotations by Maijuna beekeepers and Stingless Beekeeping Project staff are taken from author interviews conducted in Maijuna lands in January 2022. Interviews with beekeepers were conducted in Spanish, the everyday language of most Maijuna people.
  8. The stingless bees in Maijuna beekeepers’ hives currently include fifteen unique species. Two species make up 80 percent of the colonies, another two species make up an additional ten percent, and eleven other species make up the final ten percent.
  9. See, for example, Gender Equality and Sustainable Development, ed. Melissa Leach (London: Routledge, 2016); William Ryerson, “Population: The Multiplier of Everything Else,” in The Post-Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (Healdsburg: Watershed Media, 2010); and Gerd Johnsson-Latham, “A Study on Gender Equality as a Prerequisite for Sustainable Development” (report to the Environment Advisory Council, Sweden, 2007).
  10. Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development. A complete list of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is here: “The 17 Goals,” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development.
  11. The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research, or ACEER, also supports the video project.
  12. Novice beekeepers often start with a trunk hive collected from the forest; as their skills develop, it becomes easier, faster, and safer for beekeepers to grow their collection by splitting existing hives.
  13. Maijuna promotores have begun fielding requests from other NGOs and government institutions in the region, who are interested in launching their own beekeeping programs.
  14. See Thomas Moore, “Deforestation in Madre de Dios: Its Implications for First Peoples,” in Peru: Deforestation in Times of Climate Change, ed. Alberto Chirif (Lima: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2019). The scholarly literature includes many studies documenting how road projects through Amazon rainforest have enabled ecological and cultural destruction. In recent years, the popular press has also covered this topic extensively; see, for example, Alex Cuadros, “Has the Amazon Reached its ‘Tipping Point’?The New York Times, January 4, 2023.
  15. Declaración de Posición de los Maijuna y Kichwa: La Carretera Salvador – El Estrecho” (official position statement, January 2020).
  16. Mark Bowler, author interview, February 22, 2022. The vast biodiversity in the ACRMK holds a full sample of the megadiversity of the northeastern Peruvian Amazon, including species that have been extirpated in other parts of Peru’s Loreto region, such as the giant river otter and the jaguar. A rapid biological inventory conducted in 2010 found that the ACRMK also contains a previously undiscovered habitat type called high terrace forest, which holds rare and previously undescribed species. See Michael P. Gilmore, et al, Perú: Maijuna. Rapid Biological and Social Inventories Report 22 (Chicago: The Field Museum, 2010). See also Mark T. Bowler, et al., “Estimating Mammalian Species Richness and Occupancy in Tropical Forest Canopies with Arboreal Camera Traps” in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation vol. 3 no. 3 (September 2017): 146-157, https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.35; Brian M. Griffiths, et al., “Temporal Patterns of Visitation of Birds and Mammals at Mineral Licks in the Peruvian Amazon” in Ecology and Evolution vol. 10 no. 24 (December 2020): 14152-14164, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7006; and Brian M. Griffiths, “Assessing the Drivers, Magnitude, and Implications of Hunting Pressure in an Indigenous Amazonian Community,” PhD dissertation (George Mason University, 2020).
  17. Bowler, interview. The full text of the pledge is available at the COP26 website.
Andrew Wingfield & Michael P. Gilmore, “A Sweet and Potent Harvest,” Places Journal, February 2023. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. <>

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