In the southern part of the sub-continent, UNESCO’s very first Indian biosphere holds a treasure of biodiversity. It is home to Asia’s largest populations of tigers and wild elephants, while bears and white buffalos prosper… A handful of Adivasis aborigine tribes still live on the forest, aside India’s mainstream society and cast system. Under the overhangs of tall cliffs in the heart of a high altitude jungles is where the giant bee can be found. We meet Then Mari, age 62, in a village of Irulas honey hunters. Then Mari has been climbing cliffs to collect honey for forty years. For five days, we accompany his group of ten young men to a holy cliff, home to over 65 giant bee swarms! The jungle around us is deep and thick, inhabited with honey-hungry bears and unpredictable elephants. It’s buzzing with insects and clad with the screams of monkeys.
Two of Then Mari’s sons have already left their ancestral lifestyle behind to become truck drivers. They still give a hand when comes the dangerous time of honey hunting. Such an undertaking takes a lot of time, plenty of energy and great courage. The risk and sacrifice involved is what the younger generation is no longer prepared to accept.
That’s why Keystone Foundation is now offering life insurance to honey gatherers. Like everywhere else, people here want access to western clothing and mobile phones… Minds have changed, aspirations to wealth having replaced Nehru and Gandhi’s social ideals.
For the past 15 years, as non-government organization Keystone Foundation has been supporting local tribes, improving their livelihoods by providing marketing opportunities. It has helped Irula honey hunters better sell their harvest. They learnt to filter it and package it in workshops held by women. Irula honey is marketed through a network of green shops following principles of sustainable development and fair trade.
This NGO’s efforts are now threatened by a thriving 9% growth of the GDP that has brought television in every household, and introduced in many hearts the looming attraction of urban civilization. However, some still hope for a balanced alliance of progress, education and community values instead of simply foregoing traditions to embrace modernity.