01, Jun 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
For centuries the golden floral forest honey from the Sundarbans has travelled across the world, but the stories of those who collect it, just float on the delta and into the Bay of Bengal.
There is no typically easy way to get to the world-famous Sundarbans, but even the most difficult journey to this vast mangrove in the delta where our rivers meet the Bay of Bengal, is beautiful. The term ‘in the lap of nature’ comes to life at the first sight of the greenery bordering the waters.
I reached the Sundarbans region of North and South 24 Parganas, after hours of travel by bus, then by boat on the riverine ‘roads’ as it were. I crossed miles of natural beauty, different trees, small houses in thickets, and when all was quiet could even hear the sounds from the sea floating in with the tide.
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The mind relaxes instantly here, after the clamour of the city traffic, the silence is musical. My happiness doubled when I reached a hamlet and was met warmly by the villagers. My hosts in the Sundarbans, are the original inhabitants of the mangrove lined villages. They were generous from the minute they met me, offering honey and puffed rice or muri to eat as a quick snack. Just what we needed to recover from our journey.
They then told me stories of “our Sundarbans”, surrounded by diverse natural beauty. It is recognised as the largest mangrove forest in the world, and home to a variety of flora and fauna. The mangrove forest of 10,000 square kilometers, is also recognized as a World Heritage Site.
It is also the lifeline and home to two nations that touch the waters here, Bangladesh and India. The Sundarbans is a huge source of income for the people of the coastal region as surrounding the forest are about 450 rivulets, tributaries, distributaries and canals from which thousands of fisher families make a living. The usual catch is shrimp, fish, crabs and a range of fish big and small. Then there is the famed honey, the prized forest produce of the Sundarbans.
“The sweet fame of the Sundarbans is world class,” say the locals, and I agree, as every year 15 to 18 thousand quintals of honey are extracted from the forest. This reportedly “is more than half of the honey extracted all over the country.” According to locals, about 10,000 people are engaged in honey collection in the Sundarbans.
This forest also provided herbal medicine made by the locals who know the healing elements found in the over 334 species of trees, shrubs and vines. Now, herbal medicine has become very popular and the locals have noticed that the demand for the plants found here is increasing.
The beauty of the evergreen Sundarbans is also a tonic for the soul. This is what has drawn tourists here for years, as well as the desire to see the Royal Bengal Tiger that rules the forest here, and the massive crocodiles who rule the waters. The locals estimate that the area must have earned thousands of crores each year for the nation from tourism. But that was then. Now the people of Sundarbans area are slowly coming back to their routine as the lockdown eases. For the first time in many months, they recently went to the forest again to collect honey. They had to get permission from the local administration.
Honey collection, they told me, began when there was unrest in the area as many were dying while fishing due to tiger attacks! It was then that the forest department got beehives set up for the women of 25 families in this district to nurture. Before that, it was all about collecting wild honey.
Sundarbans’ residents had been collecting honey from the jungle for centuries. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the local administration banned it. That was the beginning of months of stress for them. Seeking the administration’s permission to go to the forest is a new thing. “We never thought we would see that day when we have to get permission to enter the forests we have been living next to for ages,” say the Sundarbans Basis, or dwellers of the forest. “Then came the Amphan storm in 2020 and now the Yass storm in 2021, damaging everything in the area. We are spending our days worrying about the next storm…” was the refrain.
Life in Sundarbans is still bitter-sweet
The people are the guardians of this area which is also a lung for the region, the area of over 6,016 sq km is thick with forests. The Sundarbans, is a mangrove that protects the mainland from storms, tidal surges, and other natural disasters, a soldier silently standing guard. However, the local villagers have almost nothing.
“We don’t have good quality roads, we have to go far to get to the health center, there are no quality schools, colleges,” is the common refrain. They survive every day by fighting the challenges of both nature and governance, rather than the lack of the latter.
People are also worried about “tiger infestation” in the Sundarbans. Many honey collectors have died in tiger attacks, even villagers out collecting fish and wood have been attacked. Their cows, goats, ducks and chickens are often taken away by tigers. “We worship Bonbibi every year to escape from nature,” they say, adding that only the divine takes care of them.
I met a group of 15 men who were going to collect honey. They packed food, and essentials to last several days as they would be trekking to the depths of the forest to get the best honey. The official honey collection starts every year on April 1. “Special permission has to be taken from the local forest department,” said the honey collector. “We used traditional ways to stay safe and overcome the fear of tigers when we go and collect honey from the deep forest,” said a veteran of the group.
Once there, they smoke the bees away from the hive, then cut the portion they need. The honey is extracted by squeezing the waxy hives by hand. The group usually travels in a small boat. Only 15 members at a time, one of whom stays in the boat while the rest scatter into the jungle. The ‘collectors’ scan the forest and find the hives by following the swarms of bees, and like the bee they work as a team. When someone loses his way, he finds his partner with a ‘bad’ signal code only they know. The honey collection campaign of the Mouyal team I met lasts almost a month. So, they take with them enough stocks of rice, pulses, oil, drinking water, onions, peppers and other food. Mouyal the team leader also takes his favourite kantha-pillow for the night’s rest.
In the Sundarbans, high quality beehives are found in the beautiful khalisha flower trees and bain trees. Honey collectors can collect an average of one to two ‘wheels’ of hives. Each wheel has between five to ten kilos of honey, and each team collects up to 18,000 Kg a month. Sometimes they sell it to the village for around 400 rupees a wheel. The honey from Sunderbans has sweetened palates across India and abroad. But how sweet is the collector’s life? “This profession is quite risky… There are tigers on the one hand, and pirates on the other,” said one. The bee stings are too obvious to bother with.
Pro tips from the honey collectors
There are only four ways to recognise pure honey the collectors said: natural honey will not freeze; it will heat up quickly when rubbed by hand; it will not ignite and dogs always reject any food which has pure honey in it! Honey has glucose and fructose and is an unadulterated food. According to the locals, honey’s sugar concentration is so high that no germ can survive in it for long. It also contains a lot of vitamins, enzymes, minerals as well as some proteins.
I was told honey does not contain cholesterol. But it is sweet and will get stored in the body as fat if eaten too much, warned a collector with a laugh, “If you want to eat more, you have to eat less sugar, rice, bread and potatoes. Otherwise, you will get fat.”
The most interesting tip I learnt was that honey can be used as a first aid balm on minor cuts and burns, to prevent infection!
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Mohammed Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people. For this report, he travelled to the Sundarbans in West Bengal to spend time with the honey collectors.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.