Bring back the bees: How farmers are restoring Peru’s pollinators

A community builds a brighter food future through ecosystem restoration

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By Ysabel Calderón, 2023 Mountain Restoration Steward and founder and CEO, Sumak Kawsay. All photos courtesy of Ysabel Calderón.

High up in the Andes mountains of northern Peru, a monoculture stretches across the San Francisco de Asís farming community in Lambayeque province. Local farmers live off the production of sugarcane byproducts as their main economic activity and primary source of income.   

Over time, and due to increasing external pressures and the demands of a socioeconomic system that excludes peasant populations from income-generating opportunities, many mountain communities in Peru have forgotten how to farm in a way that respects the land and the cycles of nature. They have ceased to rescue their native seeds, connect with the land and keep alive their ancestral knowledge about bees and their importance. 

Sunrise in the mountains of northern Peru.  

“In the old days, farmers had diverse sources of income from the sale of fruits and seeds produced on their land,ˮ local farmer Chavelo Bernilla mentioned to me during one of our meetings. “There were more species of herbs, shrubs and trees, and there was an essence of living in community – of living in harmony with nature.” 

Intensive agriculture led to an increase in pests in the region, causing local people to suffer major economic losses. Trees such as avocado have died, edible fruits such as tumbo (Passiflora quadrangularis) have been lost, and others are in poor condition, making them impossible to sell.   

This type of agriculture, with the indiscriminate logging of trees such as hualtaco (Loxopterygium), palo santo (Bursera graveolens) and faique (Acacia macracantha), has developed at the expense of wild plants and fruit trees, entire forests and ecosystems, biodiversity and sustainable food production.  

Today, however, the farmers of San Francisco de Asís are learning and becoming aware of ecosystem restoration and the role of pollinators in forest and agrobiodiversity conservation.   

Sumak Kawsay’s restoration project, supported by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL)’s Restoration Stewards program, develops workshops and field visits in which farmers learn to recognize the importance of trees in and around their crops. It also teaches farmers to improve soil health and contribute to regulating microclimates, increasing carbon sequestration and enhancing biodiversity at multiple scales.

Members of Sumak Kawsay’s restoration project from the village of El Higuerón and Ysabel Calderón, founder and CEO of Sumak Kawsay and 2023 Mountain Restoration Steward

Agricultural biodiversity: Restoring forests to build sustainable food systems  

Occupying nearly half of the planet’s habitable land area, agriculture is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. It’s critical to implement land use strategies that support biodiverse, inclusive, resilient and secure food systems.   

In the mountains of El Higuerón and surrounding villages, deforestation, the climate crisis and pesticide use by some farmers have contributed to the decline of forest areas and of native bees and other pollinators. This has in turn reduced the harvest of fruits and seeds – the basis of the local diet – and increased food insecurity in the area.

In our restoration project, jointly carried out by Sumak Kawsay and local farmers, we emphasize the importance of planting a variety of species. We recover seeds that have gone extinct in the community and collect others from native trees, while learning about their multiple ecological functions, such as controlling soil erosion and attracting pollinators.     

To increase and diversify sources of income for local farmers, we identify honey-producing trees, which attract and feed bees for honey production, and other trees, whose seeds are used for jewelry, such as the choloque (Sapindus saponaria L.) and the huayrul (Erythrina fusca Lour). 

Seeds of a melliferous shrub, which attracts various species of pollinators. 
Ysabel and one of the members of the project on his farm in El Higuerón. 

We have also built and implemented a nursery that houses a diverse range of native species, where they grow until they reach a suitable height to be planted in the field. Some of the species we prioritize are:  

  • Higuerón (Ficus insipida Willd), which has a high capacity to attract water to the surface.  
  • Hualtaco (Loxopterygium), which contributes to the conservation of native stingless bees. Many of these bees species tend to nest in tree trunks and are vital to the conservation and continuity of native forests and fruit trees.   
  • Palo santo (Bursera graveolens), a highly depredated species, almost extinct in our community, which provides services to both wildlife and humans. For example, it feeds native bees and other insects and is home to several species of ants. It is used for the production of incense, essential oils and resin, and it offers a source of timber. 
Stingless native bee, plebeia sp

This restoration project involves hard work that encompasses food production, human well-being and biodiversity conservation in the pursuit of Sumak Kawsay’s goal of returning to “living in harmony with nature.” 

But this will only be possible if – on top of individual and community efforts – appropriate agricultural and environmental policies are jointly implemented at the national, regional and local levels. 

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