‘Blood honey’ is a booming business and the rising demand is changing the lives of moulis in Sundarbans

‘Blood honey’ is a booming business and the rising demand is changing the lives of moulis in Sundarbans
Representative imagePixabay
  • Sundarban honey has high demand for its nutritional value and purity.
  • It is, however, called blood honey for the risks involved in collection as every year people die venturing into the forests to collect honey.
  • There are now multiple local organisations like Bonphool, Dhenki and Sundarini Naturals that are investing in safer procedures to collect honey and growing yearly with the increase in demand.
Sukanta Das is from a family of moulis from the Sundarban delta’s Kultali area in the state of West Bengal, on the eastern coast of India.

The lives of people of this community of traditional honey collectors lay, sometimes precariously, entwined with this largest continuous mangrove forests on earth as they venture into the deep, to collect honey.

About 60% of the Sundarbans is in Bangladesh and the rest in West Bengal, India. The Indian Sundarban is spread across 9,629 square kilometres (sq.km.), of which 4,493 sq. km., is inhabited and the rest is categorised as reserve forest.

Home to the Royal Bengal tigers, the risk to life is so high that this honey is also called “blood honey”. And it is nearly twice as expensive as the branded honey.

WATCH: What is blood honey and why is it so expensive?

“In our area, there are many cases of people being attacked by tigers when they go into the forests to collect honey. Some are even killed,” Das says.

Though Das has remained in the same business of honey as his family, his job is much safer.

Since March 2020, he has been a part of a cooperative, Sundarban Banaraksha Bahumukhi Samabay Samity, that maintains bee boxes in the protected forest area and farms their own honey.

This Samity is one of the three self help groups (SHG) started by the Joint Forest Management Committee, a partnership body of the local community and the forest department, to provide the community an alternative livelihood.

“We now have multiple camps in the forest [where bee boxes are maintained]. We have placed these boxes in protected areas, which traditional beekeepers maintain as samitys [cooperatives] formed with the help of the forest department. The department helped us get a loan from the West Bengal State Cooperative Bank,” says Pralay Samanta, another member of the cooperative who handles the marketing of the brand of this honey, Bonphool.

Nidhiram Naskar, like Das, who used to collect honey from the forests has also joined the community for a safer employment option. But for him, it has also turned out to be more profitable.

“Earlier, we used to get anywhere around ₹100-150 [when we sold to buyers]. We used to go in groups of three or four and in the end we would make around three or four thousand rupees (from one trip in the forest). Now we make double the amount per kilogram and overall,” says Naskar.

Last year, they produced 34 tonnes of honey and managed to pay ₹10,000 monthly to every person involved. This year, they are planning to scale up. And in between, the demand rose sharply when there was a controversy about big Indian brands selling spurious honey in December.

“We produced a total [of] 34 tonnes [of] honey. We had two kinds of bottles – one of 490 gram [gm] and one of 250 gm. The 490 gm bottle was priced at ₹300 and the 250 gm bottle was priced at ₹175. We distributed the profits equally among all the beekeepers,” says Samanta.

Like Bonphool, Sundarini Naturals is another cooperative organisation that works with the honey collector community. What started with the procurement and selling of two to three tonnes of honey in 2015 has increased now to eight tonnes in 2020.

In 2021, the sales target is 10 tonnes. In these years, the number of farmers has also increased from 50 to 214. “Earlier, we used to pay the farmers ₹150 -160. But now we pay them ₹250 per kg at the time of procurement. For such a production of ten tonnes, our cost is over ₹20 lakh. For this, we have taken a loan from the state cooperative bank,” says Sima Das, procurement officer, Sundarini Naturals.

But a better payment procedure is still a challenge. “We pay the farmers in their bank [accounts] every ten days and now all of them have accounts. But there is a problem. As these farmers are from deep interiors of the Sundarban area, they find it difficult to collect their money. If there are [more] kiosk-type banks set up in the Sundarban area, then the farmers can collect their money easily,” says Das.

There is often a question about higher pricing of this honey. A kilogram of organic Sundarini honey is sold for ₹900 and 490 gm of Bonphool honey is sold at ₹560. Branded honey available in the market is often found at half the price.

‘Blood honey’ is a booming business and the rising demand is changing the lives of moulis in Sundarbans
honey comparison Amazon/BI

But Samanta explains that people are willing to pay to keep their honey pure.

“People often ask why Sundarban honey is more expensive. Firstly, one major part of our cost input is going deep into the forest area. This means that there is also nothing like pesticides or chemicals or any other impurities in this. Additionally, the purpose of ventures like this is the financial upkeep of this community too. So, we have to keep our prices a bit high,” he says.

But the customers are not just paying for a social cause, explains Debasish Chakraborty, marketing head of Dhenki, an organisation that started during the pandemic last year to help farmers to sell their produce.

“Sundarban’s honey is multi-floral. The difference in colour depends on the kind of flowers involved, but normally it is of caramel colour. Some [are] a little red and some a little blackish. It is comparatively less thick. Because this honey is multi-floral and there is practically no use of antibiotics or pesticides in Sundarbans, moreover the bees are also of the wild variety, the taste and nutrition of this honey is very different from others,” he says.

Both Samanta and Chakraborty point out that there are plenty of takers of this honey in other parts of India now. Chakraborty sees plenty of opportunity for the brand to grow if the government can project it in the right way. “It would be [a] big boost to the business if the government promotes the distinct qualities of the Sundarban honey,” says Chakraborty.

Das wants to reach out to the government for a two-pronged help for the business. For the company, she needs capital and infrastructure help. “We would like to request the government for some working capital to procure (more) honey because it is seasonal. And as a small organisation, this kind of help in the form of some grant can help us a lot as the money needs to be invested for the entire year. We would also need some support to establish a honey processing plant,” says Das.

For the collectors, she wants forest permits and smooth insurance schemes. “We would like to request the government for forest permits. Only a few farmers get such permits. If more farmers get permits, they will be benefited. The honey collectors stay in the fringe areas of the forests,” she says.

As of now, all three, Sundarini, Dhenki and Bonphool use their websites to sell their honey. Bonphool is also available on ecommerce portals like Amazon. “We use Amazon in a big way. We use Biswa Bangla (West Bengal government’s website) and our own website Sundarban JFMC. Also others like Purulia JFMC,” says Samanta.

India cricket coach Ravi Shastri tests COVID positive, placed in isolation
Atal Pension Yojna dominates social security scheme with 66% NPS subscriber base