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A Salt Spring-based non-profit group is working to promote resilience, sustainability and development by building a beekeeping and permaculture collective in Haiti.

In late 2012, David MacDonald and Brian Coombs travelled to Haiti to help with relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country. While their first trip was to help deliver food to those in need, they would return with a way to have  a more lasting impact on both the people and the environment in Haiti.

It was MacDonald’s background in beekeeping that led them to the idea of teaching sustainable apiculture to a community in Haiti. After their 2012 trip, MacDonald and Coombs started Hives for Haiti, an organization with the goal of assisting Haitians to build organic, sustainable apiaries using permaculture practices.

“Brian and I were looking for something that we could do that could be long term, that wouldn’t promote dependency and that they could actually take and use to build a life for themselves,” MacDonald explained. “We want to teach people the skills they need to be able to run a small-scale apiary and be able to feed their families.”

MacDonald and Coombs met with a few beekeepers as they were researching their project. They learned that in 1995, bee populations in Haiti were all but wiped out by an outbreak of Varroa mites. Varroa mites are parasitic mites that attach themselves to the bees and feed on the bees’ fat deposits. Varroa infestations can lead to the death of colonies. The outbreak caused most of the beekeepers in the country to stop keeping bees and almost all of the beekeeping knowledge was lost.

“[The mites] just wiped out the population across the island . . . they didn’t know what it was that caused it,” MacDonald said. “There was only a very small amount of people who were keeping bees in Haiti. We met with one of the ones in Cerca-Carvajal [a village in Haiti] and . . . with the town elders to share the idea with them.”

The project was envisioned to be more of a partnership than an aid program, and designed with independence in mind. MacDonald and Coombs wanted to share their knowledge and help the Haitians adapt it to their local community structure.

“I asked, ‘If I was to come back and teach you the skills of beekeeping, would that be something that would interest you?’ A couple of the elders were almost crying, they loved the idea,” MacDonald said. “Their only question was how much we would charge them. It made a shiver go up my spine that they thought I would charge them for that. I told them that we wouldn’t charge them anything and that we would only ask that what we gave them they would share freely. That’s how it started and they stuck to it.”

Hives for Haiti now operates nearly independently, with Haitian beekeepers taking the reins and MacDonald providing support and advanced workshops for experienced beekeepers. After Coombs retired from the organization due to an illness, MacDonald wanted to begin the next step of their work in the country.

The program has gone through numerous changes in the last few years. MacDonald has been focused on teaching advanced beekeeping techniques to Haitian beekeeping instructors to help move the program forward. He has also been working on building the Haitians’ communications and business skills, which will help foster more independence from the Canadian side of the organization. Finally, with the help of Brandon Bauer from Permaculture B.C., teaching permaculture practices has become a major part of the program.

“Permaculture is really more important than beekeeping. Without permaculture, without them being able to preserve the land and utilize it in a sustainable way, there won’t be anything for the bees,” he said. “With permaculture they will be able to slowly recoup the gift that the land has to offer.”

MacDonald said he is hopeless at fundraising. The program is funded almost entirely by his beekeeping work on Salt Spring. All of the proceeds from the work in Haiti go towards the local economy and administration costs are zero as the work is done by volunteers. MacDonald will be teaching a beekeeping course on Salt Spring that begins in February. Course admission fees will help build a youth beekeeping program in Haiti.

“I live for beekeeping. I just love bees so much and I just get so much from the Haitian people, they just fill my heart,” he said. “This project belongs to the Haitian people and they grow it the way grow it, not how we say they should grow it.”

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