The Sundarbans is the source of livelihood for the people living in the coastal areas of Satkhira. Those people travel to the largest mangrove forest of the world and risk their lives. Among them, honey collectors – locally called moual – face the greatest risks. Sometimes they are killed by tigers.
The moual are deprived of a fair price for the honey they risk their lives to collect while the middlemen profit from it. Additionally, there is adulterated honey sold on the market, labelled as kholisha flower honey from the Sundarbans.
The honey of kholisha flowers is the best quality honey and is very popular. Its price is also high. Aside from the honey of kholisha flowers, the mouals also collect honey from goran, bain and gibor flowers.
The harvesting period of kholisha flowers' honey starts in the beginning of May and continues till July. The honey collected in May looks bright while the honey harvested in June and July looks slightly darker.
Kholisha is a mangrove plant. A mature plant is five to seven feet tall. It cannot be found everywhere in the jungle of the Sundarbans. When the flowers bloom, swarms of bees come to collect the honey. Butterflies also like the flowers. These plants grow separately in the forest. They do not grow in dark places. This plant also grows in: India, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and China.
Harvesting the honey
Mohosin Alam is a moual. He lives in Sora village under Gabura union in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira. Around 40,000 people live in different villages of the union and almost half of them depend on the Sundarbans and the coastal rivers for their livelihood.
Mohosin has shared his experience of collecting honey from the forest – and the obstacles the mouals face in their profession – with The Business Standard.
The first step of going to the Sundarbans to collect honey is to prepare a team of 10-12 mouals. Then they take loans at a certain interest rate from local money-lenders – called mohajon – and rent boats for one month with that money. It costs Tk1 lakh to rent a boat. With a sufficient amount of food and necessary equipment on the boats, they travel to the forest. After anchoring the boats at a suitable place, the collectors enter the jungle – divided into several groups.
Every few moments, they signal to each other by making a sound – ku ku – to know everyone's location. Everybody searches for beehives. When one of them finds a beehive, he calls the other members of the team using the signal.
"The man, who carries the collection basket, is called kariala. The man who disperses the bees is called karuala and another moual slices the hive," said Mohosin. The kariala goes to the boat to keep the collected hive there. In such a way, the team works in three groups.
Obstacles to collecting honey
The mouals enter the Sundarbans with a boat license certificate given by the forest department.
"Most of the mouals travel to the forest illegally. However, the mouals, who enter the forest with the government's permission, also have to give Tk1,000 per boat to the foresters inside the Sundarbans. Apart from this, the mouals have to give the officers two kilogrammes of honey per maund. Further, many mouals have been killed by tigers," said Mohosin.
From 2001-2018, a total 207 people – who went to the Sundarbans to earn their livelihoods – were killed by tigers, according to the forest department.
However, when asked about the allegation that money and honey is taken from the mouals, Abul Hasan, assistant forest conservator of Sundarbans Satkhira Range, said, "If anybody can give any proof of such kind of act, action will be taken against the officer concerned."
There are 260 boat license certificates for collecting honey from the Sundarbans. One certificate allows one boat, that can accommodate six mouals, entry. So there are 1,560 honey collectors in the district.
Supplying honey to the markets
Another honey collector of Sora village, Rafikul Islam, said they extract honey from the hives after returning to the boats. They keep the honey in several small drums. Then they sell the honey to the honey traders.
Shahinur Rahman is a honey trader. His shop Modhur Canteen is the biggest shop in Shyamnagar Sadar, from where the honey is supplied to different parts of the country.
Shahinur said, "I supply the honey to different regions of the country through courier service. I get orders online. My shop has become renowned now. All the customers contact me to get the best quality honey of the Sundarbans. Today (Thursday) I sent 44 kilogrammes of honey to: Chandpur, Jalalpur, Sunamganj, and Dhaka. I sell kholisha flower honey at Tk800 per kilogramme at retail level and Tk900-Tk950 at the wholesale level."
Middlemen make the profits
Moual Mohosin Alam said, "If we sell the honey to the mohajon from whom we took the loan, we get Tk10,000-Tk12,000 per maund of honey. The market price of that honey is Tk15,000-Tk16,000. If we do not sell the honey to the mohajon, we have to give him a share of the money we earn from the sale.
"Influential traders purchase the kholisha flower honey – which we risk our lives collecting from the Sundarbans – at a low price and then sell it on the markets across the country at a higher rate. Additionally, adulterated honey is being sold on the markets as honey from the Sundarbans," said Mohosin.
Fake kholisha flower honey
There are some unscrupulous honey traders, who cheat people by selling adulterated or fake honey calling it kholisha flower honey. They make honey from sugar or cultivate bees for the commercial production of honey. As the price of the Sundarbans' honey is much higher, they follow this dishonest path.
Gazi Imran Hossain of Shyamnagar Sadar said adulterated honey was seized from Shyamnagar several years ago. One cannot distinguish this impure honey from the pure one at first. After several days, when sugar deposits at the bottom of the bottle of the honey, people can understand that it is not authentic.
There are honey traders in every upazila of Satkhira. They collect honey in different ways and sell it to the customers. Nazrul Islam of Shibpur village in Tala Sadar area bought honey from a shop in Tala Bazar 15 days ago. He said, "After several days, I saw that sugar was deposited at the bottom of the bottle. Then I realized that it was adulterated honey."
According to Gourob Das, deputy general manager of Satkhira Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) estate, there are 800 registered bee farmers in the district. Altogether there are 1,500 bee farmers in the region. Currently, these bee farmers are supplying honey to the shops in different markets of the district.
He said, "These bee cultivators were trained under a project named Moumachi Prokolpo [Bee Project] till 2017. Two programmes were also held in the Sundarbans region. They were also provided with Tk20,000-Tk25,000 loans each. However, they did not pay back the loans."
SM Abdullah, the district marketing officer of Satkhira, said the government price of honey, per kilogramme, was Tk550.
"We do not have the capability of determining which honey is pure and which one is not. The Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has that capability. There are some verbal allegations that fake honey is being sold by dishonest traders in Shyamnagar. If anybody gives any specific information in this regard, action will be taken by a mobile court," said Abdullah.