SOCORRO, Colombia – With a daughter just a few months old in her arms and a wide smile, Cenni Cortes sells the honey she produces on her farm in 1/2 kilo (1 lb.) bags – she is one of the hundreds of women in the Colombian countryside who have found beekeeping a path to empowerment.
“We women have been the ones who have called other beekeepers to get in on the project and see if it works for them,” said Cortes, one of the first beneficiaries of the Honey Bee Initiative, promoted by George Mason University in the United States and being developed around the town of Socorro in the Colombian province of Santander.
This program, which also has the support of the Industrial University of Santander (UIS), is financed by BBVA Colombia bank and 80 percent of its beneficiaries are women.
Cortes represents all it means to be a Santander woman: her work, her strength and sense of community are traits of those born in this northeastern region of Colombia
Johana Mesa is another like her. She carefully opened the lid on one of the 13 beehives on her in-laws’ farm in the village of Alto de Reinas, half an hour from downtown Socorro.
Women have traditionally been in charge of the bees without stingers, though the Honey Bee Initiative discards that stereotype.
Mesa is an excellent example, since she alone is in charge of managing all the hives on the farm because her husband is allergic to them, she said.
“I learned to manage them at meetings and from what my husband taught me,” Mesa said, since this program has as its principal beneficiary families that have already worked with bees, as she did.
In rural Colombia, woman is synonymous with community.
The rural woman’s place is generally within the home, “but when she begins to contribute to the family economically and begins to gain leadership within the community, she gains empowerment,” said German Perilla, director of the Honey Bee Initiative.
For that reason, Perilla believes this program has two aspects: on the one hand it creates economic opportunity, and on the other, social empowerment.
The key, he said, is that the rural Colombian woman “thinks in terms of the community, the man doesn’t. The woman creates community.”
To witness the positive impact of the initiative, 30 students from George Mason University made the trip to Socorro from the United States.
One of them is Abby Rasheed, who studies music and business at the university. She said this is a fine example of how positive changes can be achieved by involving various sectors of the same community: “A school or a business can make a change.”
Her professor and one of the promoters of the program, Lisa Gring-Pemble, had another idea. She believes the best thing students can learn is that “there is no need to choose between earning money and having a social objective.”
“Speaking with some women, I see the impact has been very great – for many it means an additional source of income they can use to cover their families’ needs and also those of the community,” the professor said.
The main threat to the beekeeping industry comes from the pesticides used to control the plagues that affect another part of Santander’s rural economy: coffee.
Last year pesticides killed all the bees in Orlando Acosta’s 36 hives.
“You’d see them there on the ground, dead, and there was nothing you could do. To restore those hives...costs more or less 500,000 pesos (about $159) per beehive,” he said.
In his case, every hive has about 70,000 bees.
Cortes does not believe, however, that these two industries are incompatible: “I have a farm and you can see that coffee production is 20 percent higher where bees can pollinate the plants. They feed each other, they’re complementary. Fertilization of the coffee flower is higher when there are bees around to fertilize it. The same goes for the honey – when coffee is growing nearby, it always comes out with those flavors.”
For the corporate responsibility manager of BBVA Colombia, Liliana Corales, women taking part in this project “have the chance to generate income and to empower themselves.”
But not only from a financial point of view, she said, but also “to set an example for their children.”