Probably unfamiliar to many, there’s a network of non-government organisations that helps create a self-empowered generation of forest-dependent communities in the region. The Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Programme or the NTFP-EP pushes for sustainable management of natural resources and enables communities to support themselves without harming the forests. In Cambodia, NTFP-EP works tirelessly with community honey-hunters to contribute to the conservation of bee species while making it the primary income source of several households in rural areas. Keo Tai, country director, shares his advocacy with Eileen McCormick. Keo Tai also invites everyone to join the Cambodian Honey: Tasting Class tomorrow at Farm to Table to know more about Cambodian bees.
Good Times2: Can you tell me about NTFP-EP Cambodia? How does the organisation work?
Keo Tai: NTFP-EP, in wider scope, is present in South and Southeast Asian nations. Our goal is to help the communities that depend on non-timber forest products for their daily living. NTFPs and NTFP-derived products like herbal medicine and honey are considered necessities in these communities. The formation of this organisation in Cambodia served as a commitment to undertake activities in response to issues of sustainable development and environment protection. Our first project was conservation of bees, which we started in five provinces. With the wild honey we collected, we helped to package and sell them under the brand name Nature Wild. It’s a common issue in Cambodia to link up the value chain from rural areas to major cities. With Nature Wild, we make sure the honey collected and sold receive fair prices and can be sold throughout the country.
Good Times2: We’ve known about your event at Farm to Table. How does this event help promote your cause?
Keo Tai: Many people know and love honey, but only a handful know where they come from, what organisations or initiatives conserve and run the honey industry in the country. With our event tomorrow (Saturday), the ‘Cambodian Honey: Tasting Class’, we want to share to people where honey comes from and what makes Cambodian honey different from other kinds. We also want to introduce our organisation to the attendees so they will know our work.
Good Times2: What types of bees do you mostly work with?
Keo Tai: There are five types of bee species in Cambodia. The most famous is called Apis dorsata, referred to as the elephant bee. It is the biggest bee here, and it can create raft hives that are very long and heavy. These bees are wild bees and cannot be domesticated, so one must go deep into the forest to find them.
Good Times2: What group of people or communities do you work with?
Keo Tai: We work with forest communities, those that work to help protect the lands. These are the people who spend time patrolling the forest, which means they know the area so well. All those who collect the honey are professional honey-hunters. They are not new to working with bees and going into the forest. Currently, there are five provinces and 21 groups who take part in our work.
Good Times2: How much honey can be collected per harvest?
Keo Tai: In general, we collect between five to seven tons of honey per year from all of the provinces. But take note that this is only from the federations who work with us, and not from entire Cambodia. The harvest season starts from March to May in the northern part of the country. For southern provinces such as Koh Kong, the season starts later because bees still have to migrate from the north to the coastal areas.
Good Times2: How do you control the quality of the honey?
Keo Tai: We have strict protocols – from how the honey has to be harvested to how it must be stored. We are very conscious of bees becoming endangered species due to deforestation and pesticides. We make sure that all those who work with us know that they should leave at least 30 percent of the honey comb so that the larva can survive. We want our honey-hunters to only use sustainable practices. No bees, no honey then no money. That’s why we want for each village that work with us to follow the rules. When they come back to harvest the honey, it’s in a nice plastic bag. The committee then can weigh and pay them accordingly. We also keep records of how often and which time of the year people come to help monitor honey-hunting in the forest.
Good Times2: How can consumers tell if the honey is of good quality?
Keo Tai: Consumers should know where the honey comes from. It’s not really easy to test if what they’re buying is real honey or just sugar water. If you know the company well and where they harvest the honey, it’s less likely that you get the wrong product. As for our products, we have many tests and protocols to make sure we produce 100 percent quality across the region. Many brands are trying to follow national standards for honey. If consumers buy from any of these groups, they’ll be ensured that they get what they pay for.
Good Times2: Is the honey harvested from different areas in Cambodia different from each other?
Keo Tai: There are noticeable differences in honey collections from different provinces. For instance, the honey from Koh Kong is dark in colour and tastes bitter compared to the honey from Mondulkiri. My wife and many women I know like the Koh Kong honey for skin care. They said it’s best for cosmetic use. They taste different because of the coastal flowers, which have different kinds of pollen that change the taste and texture of the honey.
Good Times2: Do you plan to export your honey?
Keo Tai: The laws for exporting into places like Japan or Singapore are very strict. And it’s quite expensive to get certified, so we don’t think that is realistic for now. Also, Cambodia has honey deficit, which means the country still imports honey. I think I read somewhere that Cambodia imports 500 tons of honey every year.
Good Times2: Do you do any seed collection for the bees’ food source?
Keo Tai: We do but we have only just started. NTFP has spent a lot of money on community forestry not just for bees but to help attract other wild animals like birds into the wetland. We also do work to help teach people not to use pesticides that kill not only the bees but also birds. There is a new age term for trying to build up food sources for wild animals or for the bees: agroforestry. We plan to sustain this work.
Good Times2: Are there any common misconceptions about honey here?
Keo Tai: Yes. Many people think that to extract the honey from the comb, they need to squeeze it or spin it. This is not good for the honey because it will get the toxins found inside the comb. The best way to extract honey is to cut it slightly on each side and let it drain slowly.
It’s also a misconception of people to think that if the honey crystalises, it’s not pure. People should know that honey contains sugars from fruits and some sugars made of glucose. When these sugars are not distributed equally, the honey crystalises. But it doesn’t mean it’s not natural.
Good Times2: Do you plan to train other honey-hunters who are not part of the community forest programme?
Keo Tai: We do provide trainings to organisations like Wildlife Alliance and World Vision to give them skills on how to process and package honey properly. We also hold events and educate Cambodian people about sustainable honey-hunting and protecting the environment.
We would like to start a centre in the future called NTFP-Exchange. We see there are over 500 protected communities in the country and they all seem to have trouble in running businesses. Our centre would provide them trainings and help their businesses grow while ensuring that the forests are protected.