A Māori community leans on tradition to restore its forest

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Money for honey

To maintain autonomy, manage the forest as they see fit, and see the community thrive, it definitely helps to have reliable sources of income and employment. But opportunities for economic development are limited by Ruatāhuna’s isolation. By New Zealand standards, most houses in the area are pretty run-down, education levels are low, and a lot of people are dependent on unemployment benefits. “We’ve got third world statistics within a first world context,” says Tahi. It’s a familiar refrain among Māori, who are overrepresented in unemployment, poverty, poor health outcomes and incarceration rates at the national level.

However, the Trust is determined to change those statistics among its people. It has launched a number of initiatives to nourish the local economy and culture, as well as the ecosystems that sustain them. One of the most successful is Manawa Honey.

Manawa means “heart.” In Māori legend, the North Island of New Zealand is a fish that the hero and trickster Maui pulled up from the ocean, and Ruatāhuna is located at the fish’s heart. The name also represents the care the company puts into its products and its employees, says Tahi.

When the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to New Zealand in the 1830s and quickly spread throughout the country, honey became a revered food for the people of Ruatāhuna, and wild honey-gathering from hives high up in trees became a traditional practice in the area.

But the contemporary inspiration for Manawa Honey came when Tahi and her husband, Tāwi Te Kurapa, set up a couple of beehives in their backyard orchard in 2009. Tahi had kept bees before, and Te Kurapa wanted to learn. “So we set them up, and they produced over 100 kilos [220 pounds] of honey each,” she recalls; “it was incredible.”

Both Tahi and Te Kurapa are on the Trust board, and as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of children in the area, they are well aware of the dearth of reliable local work. Possum hunting for the fur market is the main employment option, but it’s seasonal and physically challenging, and not everyone is keen or able to do it. Te Kurapa did it in the past, “but it’s not easy,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared to stay out in the bush for weeks on end, and the majority of the fullas [people] around here don’t want to do that.”

The Trust ran a feasibility study on commercial honey production, and the numbers looked good enough. “So we thought, nah we’ll go hard, because we’ve got all these kids here with us anyway,” says Tahi. “And we got stuck in.”

Room with a view: the Manawa Honey office. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

The board and staff decided not to make the same mistakes as earlier development initiatives like forestry, and committed instead to managing and staffing almost the whole operation internally, in Ruatāhuna.

That meant training people in beekeeping from scratch, setting up an extraction shed, and learning to market the product domestically and internationally. “It wasn’t the easiest way to start off,” acknowledges head beekeeper Nick Mītai, who had no prior experience in the trade before starting with Manawa Honey. “But it’s worked out well, because now we know every step of the business,” he says.

Mītai used to work in forestry, but jumped at the opportunity to shift careers to something local, reliable, and sustainable: “I wanted to do something that was giving back to the environment,” he says, “not just taking away.” While honeybees aren’t native to New Zealand, they play an important pollination role in the forest, as well as pastures, orchards and gardens, especially since birds that once filled that role have declined so significantly in recent years.

Beekeeper Nick Mītai examines a frame from a hive. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
Beekeeper Nick Mītai examines a frame from a hive. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

The business has also provided a useful opportunity for community members to connect with the forest in new ways as the community evolves, says Tahi. “You go to the bush with what you’re looking for,” she says; “and we’re really good on things like rimu and mataī for forestry, and then we know other ones that are rongoa [medicinal plants], but we didn’t know our honey trees.”

Mītai, for one, now revels in his new knowledge of the forest. “See that tall one, with the red flower?” he asks as we wind up a gravel road in his truck to check on some of his hives. “That’s a rewarewa [Knightia excelsa]: it’s what the bees are on at the moment. It’s the first tree to flower in the season.”

“When I first started,” he says, “I thought it was just like, bees make honey. But the longer you do it, the more complicated it gets! It’s like anything: once you’re in that line of work or interest, it opens up a whole new world. So now I know a whole lot about what’s going to flower when, because the placement of the hives depends on that.”

Manawa Honey is also influencing the Trust’s forest management plan, particularly in terms of which species they prioritize for restoration. “We’re now really interested in tāwari [Ixerba brexioides] and rewarewa, the ones that give us pollen and nectar for our bees,” says Tahi. “So it has changed our thinking in terms of what we value and want to see more of in our forest.”

That includes a newfound love for the scrubby, prickly mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) tree, which represents one of the first waves of forest regeneration from pasture. The tree used to be seen as a nuisance, as Manawa Honey’s production manager (and Brenda’s son) Jim Tahi explains: “When I was younger, we were always chopping it down and cutting it back. It was just taking up space where we could have had pasture for our horses and other animals.”

But mānuka is a gold mine for beekeepers: the honey’s antibiotic properties have earned it “superfood” status internationally, and it retails for 50 percent more than any of the company’s other honeys. So these days, they try to keep it standing wherever they can.

There’s not a lot of mānuka to be had in this forest, so the business hasn’t been as lucrative as for some other New Zealand honeymakers. But the product has recently made it into a major domestic supermarket chain, and the team is pursuing export options, too.

Jim Tahi, Manawa Honey’s production manager, stands on his deck with one of his children and three grandchildren. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
Jim Tahi, Manawa Honey’s production manager, stands on his deck with one of his children and three grandchildren. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Manawa Honey now has about 1,000 hives throughout Te Urewera, and employs five beekeepers and six other staff. They’re aiming for 4,000 hives within the next three to five years, which would require about 20 beekeepers: a significant amount of employment for a small place like Ruatāhuna. They’ve also begun investing some of their profits into projects that serve their larger goals for the community and its forest, such as a “forest academy” program for local young people that kicked off in July.

In September this year, the company won a regional award for business excellence, which is proudly displayed on a shelf in the staff room. “People are like, ‘What? Ruatāhuna won a business award?’” laughs Tahi. “It’s just unthinkable: we can win haka [a ceremonial war dance], or singing, but business?”

As someone who always has the bigger picture of community development and sustainability in mind, she’s particularly proud of that achievement. “Our kids will look at that and think: ‘We win haka, and we win business,’” she says. “It opens their minds to possibilities, and that’s really important for us.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment



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