March 27, 2017

Guest Commentary – Bees Are Better than Barriers

By Dr. Oscar Castañeda, vice president, Americas Program, Heifer International

Every day when I hear stories about migrants leaving the United States or living in fear of being deported, I think of people like Gloria Recinos. The single mother was getting ready to move from Guatemala a few years ago because she wasn’t making enough money growing coffee to support her two daughters.

Recinos was tempted to search for work in the United States, but then she had second thoughts. Although her life was difficult, she figured it would be harder for her kids if she left them behind. “The people who go out, they suffer,” she said. “The family that stays behind here suffers, too.”

Recinos decided to stay and was eventually helped by an unusual source: honeybees. She joined an economic development project that taught her how to raise the insects and sell their honey. Her new business enabled her to make enough money for her to keep living with her family in Huehuetenango in the highlands of western Guatemala.

Her case offers two valuable lessons.

The first is that economic development—even something as simple as beekeeping—can be an effective way to help people earn a living at home. It’s what most migrants really want to do—stay with their families.

This is an important point for the new US administration in Washington, which appears to favor a different approach—spending billions building a wall. There are also plans for more military spending, which could result in deep cuts to the budget for economic development projects like the one that benefited Recinos. This would be unwise because poverty is often the main source of instability, conflict, and migration—problems that tend to easily spread across borders.

The second valuable lesson Recinos teaches us is that her small business could be a good model for tens of thousands of people who are expected to return to Latin America amid the sweeping U.S. crackdown on undocumented workers. Finding new ways for returnees to make a living will be key to making the countries more stable, secure, and economically successful.

A group from Maya Ixil work with Gaspar de la Cruz Toma on beehive maintenance in Santa Avelina, Guatemala. Credit: Heifer International. 

Many migrants moved to the United Sates to work after Central America’s coffee crop was devastated by the plant-choking coffee rust disease, or la roya, in 2012. The crisis caused more than $1 billion in crop losses and threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

Although many of the victims of la roya migrated to the United States, many stayed on their farms and endured the crisis. The tactics they used to keep their livelihoods and feed their families might be useful to those who will return home soon.

I’ve taken a close look at what has worked for more than 700 coffee-growing families over the past 10 years in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru. My main takeaway from the research is that the best strategy includes a two-pronged approach that: 

  • Helps the farmers boost productivity and stimulates new economic opportunities.

  • Ensures the farmers’ food security in between harvests and during periods of crisis.

The farmers I studied worked with Heifer International, a global nonprofit seeking to end hunger and poverty with sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship. Heifer partnered with the farmers to adopt practices that minimized disease, improved yields, increased soil fertility and curtailed erosion.

Better methods were introduced to wash, ferment and dry coffee beans. The farmers also received business training, including marketing, financial, and entrepreneurship development.

But six years into the study, the coffee rust outbreak wiped out much of the crop. The crisis demonstrated the value of the second prong of the strategy: improved food security.

Heifer provided farmers with livestock—cows, goats and guinea pigs—along with training in animal management. Seeds were provided for home gardens. The animals produced milk and meat, along with manure, which farmers used to fertilize the gardens. Families diversified their diets and saved money by eating products they produced in their backyards. They also earned income selling in local markets. The sources of income and nutrition boosted their self-reliance.

Beekeeping was introduced and proved to be an excellent complement to coffee. The initial cost of bees is low, the market is underserved and introducing bees in coffee fields enhances productivity.  

Farmers worked within cooperatives, which supported efforts to diversify the financial base. They were especially interested in honey production and helped to process and market the product. One cooperative in Honduras set up a weekly market where women’s groups sold their products for a premium price because they were organic.

In all four countries, households improved the quality of their diets as measured by the number of food groups consumed. More than half of the farmers surveyed said that because they diversified their agricultural products, they can rely on other income amid wild fluctuations in the coffee market.  

It looks like some type of new wall or barrier will be built along the US border. This seems to be the political reality of our time. I only hope that we can also focus on creative and simple ways to help people earn a living at home because that’s where most of them want to be.

To learn more about Heifer International's work with coffee growers in Latin America, check out Ten Years of Coffee in the Americas.

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. References to specific non-profit, private, or government entities are not an endorsement. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

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Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

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