Jeronimo Villas Boas

This description of Jeronimo Villas Boas's work was prepared when Jeronimo Villas Boas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


Jeronimo is working with different sectors to recognize and strengthen native beekeeping, valuing the diversity of its product, generating income to its traditional guardians and ultimately conserving the 250 native species of bees.

The New Idea

In Brazil, there are around 250 species of native bees, yet the majority of bee keepers use practices designed for African bees. As a result, the native bees are on the verge of extinction, and many plants are not pollinated because the African bees are not attracted to them. In the face of this growing environmental issue, Jeronimo Villas Boas is working to promote diversity in bee keeping practices, kept species, their keepers, and products, which do not formally exist in Brazil.
Believing that the best way to preserve biodiversity is by using it sustainably, Jerônimo works to strengthen the activity of meliponiculture (the culture of native bees), technically and conceptually. Jeronimo works with communities that traditionally practice meliponiculture, and are the country’ss guardians of these native insects. Ensuring that techniques are appropriate to the communities through community participation, Jeronimo aims to strengthen the value chain of the industry. His work generates revenue from selling honey, brings food security and improves local health, as honey can be used for medical purposes and is a healthy substitute to sugar. It also rescues a part of the community’s identity, in which meliponiculture plays a central role, and transmits knowledge from older to younger generations. Environmentally, native beekeeping avoids deforestation, since preserving the forest is essential to the activity.
From this technical work, Jeronimo is able to gather knowledge that is not yet formalized at the universities, and partners with them to systematize it in order to create regulations for the production of native bee honey. Jeronimo has become a preeminent bee advocate in Brazil and is building the technical foundation for regulation which favours small producers. Jeronimo is also part of the Slow Food movement, where he promotes discussions among honey producers and consumers in Latin America, and he has partnerships with important chefs in the country, to stimulate demand and to add value to the varieties of native bee honey. For the future, Jerônimo believes that the regulation will stimulate both consumption and production of native bee honey, which will allow him to replicate his bee culture techniques to many communities across Brazil. Besides that, Jeronimo’s strategy to standardize diversity can be applied to other natural products other than honey.

The Problem

The importance of bees and the challenges related to conserving their biodiversity are now global issues. Bees are important actors in the maintenance of natural and agricultural ecosystems. According to the UN, 73% of cultivated plant species worldwide are pollinated by some sort of bee species, as well as a third of food consumed by humans. The pollination services provided by these insects around the world are valued at $ 54 billion per year. Bees’ contribution to plant life and the maintenance of genetic variability is immense. The accelerating decline of bee populations, primarily wild ones, is an issue which is drawing the attention of governments around the world because of its huge impact on the environment, agriculture and the well-being of communities. Despite their importance, people know very little about bees.

There are over 500 species of stingless honey-producing bees in Latin America -- 250 in Brazil alone. The great diversity of species, together with Brazil’s diversity of plants, allows the production of honey with a myriad of tastes, aromas and densities. The activity of native bee keeping has existed for years, handled by indigenous peoples, who are the historical guardians of these bee species, responsible for their conservation. Native bees are kept in different ways and their honey is used for different purposes, such as food and medicine, depending on the region and culture of the keepers. However, these native bees, their honey and their producers do not are not formally organized in Brazil, since they are unknown by the government, academia, and society in general. When thinking about bees, people immediately think about Apis mellifera, the black and yellow bee which stings, also known as the "honey bee". This species is not native to Brazil or Latin America; it was brought from Africa by the Portuguese in the nineteenth century and, due to its ability to adapt to different climates and to find food - nectar and pollen - in diverse plant species, the African bee moved from São Paulo to quickly spread throughout America.

Since this is a very productive bee, honey production was standardized as apiculture – culture of Apis mellifera – this activity has grown together with the bee, and today the honey consumed by Brazilian households is the product of these foreign insects. Despite its productivity, the African bee cannot pollinate all plants. Yet, the Brazilian government does not formally recognize meliponiculture (native bee keeping), and the legislation that regulates animal product trade only allows Apis mellifera products trade. Brazilian Government regulates products following the logic of agribusiness – products that can be massively produced are valued, and products which are produced on an artisanal scale by using local knowledge and technologies are marginalised, sometimes accused of "threatening food security." Native bee honey and its economic chain are thus marginalized and is limited to artisanal scale, despite the product’s varieties, does not have much market value. This either prevents the traditional guardian communities of these species, fundamental to environmental conservation, from generating income, or encourages them to keep African bees.

In rural areas, most dwellings have a beehive in the backyard, which is often taken by families when they move to cities in search of better living conditions - the beehive represents a connection to the land. In addition, passing cultural knowledge to the next generation is currently a major challenge to traditional and rural life. Young people are increasingly unwilling to work in fields, especially in such an undervalued activity such as meliponiculture. Besides that, little technology is available to support families in this activity. There are a few rural institutions that promote native bee keeping in Brazil for economic development, such as Emater, Senar and Sebrae. However, these organisations "sell" a standardized technology package, which is disconnected from local knowledge and not very adaptable, and is therefore unsustainable in the medium and long term. Valuing and enabling the traditional activity of “beekeeping" is a way to strengthen ties with the land and identity. To help preserve native bees, it is crucial to enable their production chain and respect the practice’s cultural identity. If valued, the diversity of native bee honey has the potential to attract a consumer market that values traditional, distinctive products, and could offer income-generating opportunity for communities that raise native bees.

The Strategy

To Jerônimo, the appreciation of the products and producers of native bees is key for their conservation. Bee keepers are the guardians of the species in their regions of origin, but they need support, or at least a reduction of obstacles. To do this, he created Kamboas Socioambiental to operate in both the technical and conceptual areas. The practical area ensures the strengthening of production chains of meliponiculture (native bee keeping) with traditional communities and family farms in several regions of Brazil, while the conceptual side of his work looks to raise awareness of the value of bees and their keepers in society in general and works towards establishing public policies which recognize and allow this activity.

Jerônimo's technical work focuses on communities that have a traditional, historical relationship with native bees. His purpose is to generate revenue and food security for the families, as along with native bee conservation. For this, he awakens the community’s rich traditional knowledge, adding external knowledge and developing social technologies, which are always adapted to local realities. His work always starts with a diagnosis of the local reality, and it can range from the implementation of new beehives in communities, to supporting the production flow and sale of honey. The methodology is not based on a standardised solution, but varies according to the different realities. Jerônimo brings together the knowledge and practices of communities and other forms of knowledge from around the country, depending on the local situation, to enhance the production. His approach involves the indigenous peoples and traditional communities and respects traditional models of organization, with a system of voluntary adherence to productive arrangements. The communities, sometimes organized as associations, participate in the general planning, and the guidelines of the projects are set out collaboratively.

This technical work has been carried out in three regions, and is adapted according to the local differences: in the state of Espírito Santo, in the indigenous territory of the Guarani and Tupiniquim groups; in the state of Mato Grosso state, with three ethnic groups in the Xingu Indigenous Park; and in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, with an association of young agro-ecologists from the city of Jandaíra. At Espírito Santo, for example, native bees became extinct due to the local deforestation, but indigenous people reported the habit of eating native bee honey in the past. Thus, after planning and meetings with the communities, a plan for rescuing meliponiculture was put together. 24 colonies of a species the Tupiniquins reported to be the most relevant to their traditions were acquired, and people who had shown an interest in contributing to this project participated in courses in basic meliponiculture and on the multiplication of colonies. Each family works for a year on the colonies multiplication, before starting productive activities; new hives are then donated to other families, who do the same. Today, this territory has 40 beekeeping centres and manages more than 450 colonies.

At Xingu, however, there was native bee keeping, but it was not used as a means of income generation. Thus, Jerônimo’s challenge is to develop technologies to support income generation. Among the technologies created, there is a honey suction pump that works without electricity, and a different maturation process. One of native bee honey’s biggest challenge is how to guarantee shelf life, since it is a more liquid product, very susceptible to fermentation. Noting that traditional communities have the habit of consuming fermented honey, Jeronimo decided not to fight against fermentation, as rural organisations do, and experimented selling fermented honey as the final product. This distinct product, with more acidic and slightly alcoholic undertones, was well received by the market. It was then possible to put a stable product for sale -- a product that would not go bad quickly, with lower costs and benefits from its special characteristics. This also influenced the development of a technological system to fit basic health surveillance requirements, adapting artisanal beer production techniques, already available on the market, for honey fermentation.

At Rio Grande do Norte, there is a group of young people working to prevent the meliponiculture decline. In this case, Jerônimo’s work supports strengthening the group, organizing production to increase productivity, adding value to the product and seeking alternative markets. Brazil has a great diversity of bee species, environmental and cultural contexts where beekeeping culture exists, so this work can be replicated in any productive arrangement with social mobilization. Jeronimo’s strategy to enter these communities is by partnering with CSOs that already work in these territories and are already connected to the community, such as ISA (Instituto Socioambiental, by Fellow Beto Ricardo).

On a conceptual level, Jerônimo works on environmental education, social awareness, law regulation and content production and dissemination. For this, Jerônimo’s work is broad, bringing together diverse players: social movements, social sector, government, universities, private sector. Through the Iraí project, Jerônimo aims to spread meliponiculture to public spaces, such as schools and parks. He promotes environmental education through the discussion of issues associated with native bee conservation and trains young students and small-scale farmers on meliponiculture, honey production and colonies multiplication. Jerônimo is a member of the Slow Food movement, in which he is a key figure in topics related to native bee products. His work at this instance has already resulted in two motions to raise governmental awareness - a nationwide one, to the Ministry of Agriculture, and a Latin American one, to Mercosur. Jeronimo also has partnerships with important restaurants and chefs in Brazil, which has attracted a lot of attention from a consumer market that values traditional products, encouraging their consumption and generating demand.

In terms of political action, Jerônimo directly influenced the historical inclusion of the products of native bees in the RIISPOA (Regulation of the Industrial and Sanitary Inspection of Animal Products). Although this was a big step, it merely defined the existence of these products. The real legislation, which will actually regulate the productive chain, will be created in specific resolutions. The challenge is to build a non-exclusive model that respects the complexity and diversity of species of native bee, Brazilian vegetation, and production capacity of small-scale farmers. Consequently, Jerônimo’s current priority is creating a technical basis for implementing this regulation because, if it is not carried out properly, it could end up standardizing practices and harming small producers. This knowledge still does not formally exist, so Jerônimo is using his technical work and establishing partnerships with universities and research centres, to analyse and systematize local productive processes. In two years, Jerônimo will have a complete dossier to be delivered to the Agriculture Ministry to support the regulatory process. This dossier will take into account the profiles of the native bee breeders of Brazil, to include their production capacities in the regulation.

Jerônimo’s work logic is to preserve the guardians of diversity, and his work can serve as a model for valuing and enabling the production chain of native bee honey in other Latin American countries, in addition to potential expansion to other socio-biodiversity products, which are often suffocated by the homogenizing model of agribusiness, such as goat milk.

The Person

Jerônimo spent his childhood in the Amazon and grew up playing with his indigenous friends, as his parents are anthropologists working with indigenous people. When he was 6, his family moved to Brasilia, but their house was always full of people from all over Brazil and they still travelled a lot. His childhood made Jerônimo fall in love with diversity – of both people and in nature. Throughout his life, Jerônimo would see the discrepancy in the information his parents brought home from their work with indigenous tribes – such as the advance of soybean plantations towards indigenous territories – and the information shown by the media, and he started to question the Brazilian economic development model, which excludes smaller groups.

Jerônimo studied Ecology, when he did an internship at Imaflora (Institute of Agricultural and Forest Management and Certification) on a bee keeping project in the Amazon. This experience made him fall in love with native bees and, after that, all his studies at university were related to beekeeping and honey, even though there was not much information available about it related to native bees or their honey. After graduating, Jerônimo decided to do a masters in Paraíba, state outside the respected academic circuit, but that had traditional use of honey. There he could see the presence of beehives in the backyards of poor dwellings, and this became the object of his research. While doing the masters, Jerônimo realized that the communities had a lot to teach the university on that matter.

At university, he identified the world’s various players involved in bee management and conservation, and realized that they are all working in isolation. He started his work then, to tie loose ends: the need for native bee conservation and its environmental impact; the weakening tradition of native bee keeping in communities; the opportunity to generate income through honey production, national and global contexts that value local products; the existence of social movements such as Slow Food, defending the importance of sustainably produced food and valuing the role of its producers; the existence of CSOs able to work to strengthen the productive chains of honey; the absence of specific regulations for the produce of native bees and the government's inability to understand the characteristics of Brazilian family farming instead of seeking shortcuts to the standardization of production systems. Jerônimo also published the Technology Manual: Honey Bees in a Sting, a book that shows the diversity of knowledge and practices associated with the breeding of native bees in Brazil and has served as the basis for these organizations in the fight for the regulation of the native honey bee production chain and the valuing of bees in national public policies.