João Meirelles likes to walk paths. He is a social entrepreneur who produces literature, a paulistano who went to live in Belém and the founder of an organization whose name honors the path that once connected the Atlantic to the Pacific. During our conversation, he moves between his passion for the work he has been doing for more than twenty years in the Amazon and a deep discomfort about the current situation of the biome.
The Peabiru Institute, founded by João in 1988, develops a series of initiatives in the Amazon, with its longest-running project supporting the production of honey from stingless bees. “These bees are much better adapted to ecosystems, as they have been around for 4 million years and there are no less than 200 like Apis,” says João. The contrast between the times is between native bees and those brought by Europeans during the colonial period. Over time, the species originating in the Amazon had their stingers atrophied, which is why they received their name. One of the consequences is that they do not bite, which allows the hives to be placed close to the houses of beekeepers.
“We didn’t invent anything, we just put it on the shelf,” says João about the product that can now be found on supermarket shelves or purchased online. Throughout the conversation, he does not spare references to “the great masters of meliponiculture”, such as Fernando Oliveira, technical manager of the Peabiru Institute’s Amazon Bee Program, Warwick Kerr and Paulo Nogueira Neto.
After listening to it, it is easy to see how honey is an interesting product, since it generates a series of positive externalities, as economists would say, or, in other words, good things for the environment and society. In addition to increasing the income of traditional peoples and communities, it contributes to the restoration and biodiversity of forests.
As we know, bees pollinate plants and, with this, increase the productivity of a series of other Amazonian fruits such as açaí, chestnut and cupuaçu. Because it does not face most of the challenges encountered by other forest products, a recent article by an English researcher, Janet Lowore, classifies it as an “almost perfect” product. João jokes that it is the only human product that, if removed from a sarcophagus, could still be consumed, referring to the challenge of the perishability of several items of forest origin.
When I ask about potential initiatives in the region, João pauses briefly and then says, “It’s all still very small, it’s all been a pilot project for thirty years.” For him, we should look at what already exists, where the demand is, and develop more sustainable chains for products such as açaí, wood or manioc flour.
According to him, “the açaí shows how it shouldn’t be.” The problems are diverse, such as child labor, ignored by certifiers, or the creation of monocultures, with negative impacts on biodiversity. “The PPE (Individual Protection Equipment) of those who harvest açaí are shorts… they have nothing to protect.”
Returning to Peabiru, the path that originally connected the Guaranis and the Incas, we see that one of the concerns along the 3,000-kilometer route was the signage. So that the path would not be lost over time, a species of grass, which grew little and regenerated easily, was planted along the path. For João, the key to the future for the Amazon is knowing how to listen. Be attentive to signs, both those communicated by traditional peoples and those placed by market demand.