Gathering Divergent Forest Honeys: Collections and Commodity Flows in the Philippines

By Sarah Webb

When I began researching honey collecting in the Philippines, I never anticipated that making visual collections of objects and images associated with marketing honey was going to become a powerful way of stimulating discussion about my study.  But the clues were there all along. Collections are things brought together, in so many senses of the term. Such assemblages have a capacity for telling stories about how different products make their ways through the world, and into our homes, bodies and lives. Honey collecting, like other forms of forest harvesting or hunting, tends to evoke ideas about a bound type of thing moving in one direction – out of the forest and into a market (wherever that might be).  But what happens when a ‘natural forest’ honey supposedly harvested on an island in the Philippines is manufactured and sold in Manila?  And when this honey’s association with nature and forest environments is hardly natural, but needs to be made apparent by literally rendering the final product green?  How do such commodities relate to the forest honeys actually being harvested by Indigenous experts as part of their livelihoods and lifeways, and being marketed by non-government organizations?  In attempting to discuss the issues that arose from my research, I found that bringing together a range of honey products that had different, yet related, trajectories could be a wonderful prompt for talking about the social and spatial disjunctures that often occur within efforts to add value to certain types of natural resources.

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Sarah Webb talking with a honey street vendor in Metro Manila

In the Philippines, Palawan[1] honey is one such ‘value-added’ forest product.  Indigenous experts[2] seasonally harvest honey mainly from Apis dorsata beehives in forested areas on Palawan Island.  For the Indigenous Tagbanua families I worked with, honey is not only a part of their livelihood but also an important source of nutrition, sweetness, medicine and cultural identity.  Within the Philippines, many people are interested in buying Palawan honey because it is a highly valued product with a reputation for purity and quality[3], particularly because of its association with Palawan’s iconic forests and ‘natural wonders’, such as the Puerto Princesa Underground River.  Local Indigenous representatives who market honey promote non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as honey because these products support their current goals for sustainable forest livelihoods.

The notion that NTFPs, like honey, can contribute to sustainable forest livelihoods has influenced international development projects, policies and research initiatives – especially since studies began to suggest that the economic value of NTFPs might exceed that of timber.  ‘Value adding’ NTFPs often means building up markets of more highly valued forest products as an alternative to logging and mining.  The idea is to provide income for forest harvesters, while maintaining the resource base.  However, ongoing research makes apparent the need to approach the potential of NTFP commercialization for sustainability agendas with caution.  Scholars have demonstrated that merely providing more valuable resources will not necessarily address the socio-economic marginalization of forest harvesters, or the concerns of sustainable livelihoods (however these might be conceptualized).  Important research in environmental anthropology has documented how value-adding incentives can pay insufficient attention to the reasons forest harvesters do not have access to valuable forest resources – or why they no longer have such access[4].

Drawing upon this line of research, I examined how the politics of capturing value is a part of the social processes of making products valuable in the Philippines. When I began searching for Palawan honeys sold in Manila, I found that it was not only those interested in sustainable forest livelihoods who were ‘adding’ to honey in order to make it a valuable product.

Adding to Palawan Honey

The reputation of Palawan honey as ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ gives it certain market appeal, but has also inspired a burgeoning range of imitation products.  Different ‘fake’ Palawan honeys are made by adding water and sugar, the name of Palawan, and even green food coloring to honey of dubious origin.  On Palawan, campaigns have targeted adulterated honey, which is made by adding water to increase volume, and sugar or kalamansi (native lime) juice to disguise the diluted taste.  In Manila, experts on the honey trade assert that the volume of honey claimed to originate from Palawan exceeds both Palawan estimates for local production and state records of honey transported from the island. Green honey is an expensive[5] product (supposedly rare and medicinal) identified as coming from Palawan when sold across boutiques and farmers’ markets in Manila.  However, according to testing conducted by Dr. Cervancia of the University of the Philippines Los Banos, ‘green’ honey is made green by mixing yellow and blue pigments into the honey – additions which she contends change its composition in such a way that it should no longer, technically, be called honey.

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A manlalbet (honey harvester) indicates the location of a hive

So what does a black market for green Palawan honey in Manila mean for Indigenous Tagbanua harvesters? Firstly, Indigenous peoples are often blamed for adulterating local honey.  Although this practice is more likely conducted by transitory middle traders[6], these rumors cause some to shy away from purchasing honey directly from Indigenous harvesters on Palawan.  Some local buyers use such rumors to negotiate a lower price for the honey they buy from Tagbanua families, claiming the honey is of a lower or ‘reject’ quality.  Secondly, my use of the term black market is somewhat facetious. While practices of ‘fake’ honeys are widely considered undesirable, and have been banned by Palawan local government, branding or labeling honey as coming from Palawan (even when it does not) is not regulated at a national level.  At the same time, honey from Palawan does not easily make its way from Indigenous harvesters to Manila.  State permits are required to transport honey, and seasonally driven, local production means that a relatively low volume of honey from Palawan enters the Manila marketplace.

As these forest products are made valuable, particularly through their association with iconic forest environments, a space has emerged for creating even more expensive ‘fake’ honey products.  Such cultural politics are part of, rather than external to, the processes of making products valuable.  Those manufacturing and purchasing such products are actively involved in creating social and economic values of not only honey, but also the ideals of nature through which consumers position their tastes and health in relation to the environments of Palawan and the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples.

Taking Away from Added Honeys: Understanding Commodity Flows and Values through Material Culture

As I investigated these politics of valuing honey, I initially collected products[7] because I was interested in the actual objects of honey marketing.  That is, not only was I interested in what people had to say about honey, or how they behaved during sales encounters, but I also wanted to know what these material objects themselves said about honey production. I was fascinated by the material transfer of honey from the large plastic gallon jugs used during harvest to smaller containers for resale, the colors or textures of the honey itself – indicative of different qualities and tastes – and, of course, the product labels that communicated both explicit and implicit messages to potential customers.  All of this material culture supplemented, furthered, or contradicted what different people told me, and it was in making sense of those relationships and tensions that I was able to understand how Palawan honey is made valuable. But during ethnographic fieldwork, I also noticed collections everywhere I looked – from displays of product samples at non-government organization (NGO) workshops, to samples of ‘fake’ honeys being tested in university laboratories, to the ways people arranged important objects in their homes.  And this made me realize that what I had collected might be of interest to others too, and so the collection became the basis of workshops conducted at the end of my fieldwork.

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Sarah Webb and research assistant Mr. Rogelio Rodrigo at a honey collection workshop

For workshops with Tagbanua families, I prepared descriptive labels for honey and beeswax products that included information about the price and provenance, as well as photographs of different contexts of sale.  My research assistants and I arranged these into displays, and talked about the different products, answering any questions participants had.  After doing so, we passed the different objects around, and sampled each – trying on beeswax cosmetics, and smelling and tasting honeys.  At their request, a group of harvesters ran their own tests on the honeys we presented to determine for themselves whether they considered any ‘fake’, and to ascertain differing levels of quality.

Tagbanua families are only too familiar with what they describe as the dangers of ‘fake’ honey – particularly, they fear being blamed for the production of such ‘fakes’, and the resultant punishment by the state or low prices from buyers.  Most Tagbanua people are aware that a fraudulent ‘green honey’ is sold.  But the complex connections and distances between the existence of such commodities and their own experiences can be difficult for any of us to talk about.  When these differently sourced, made, packaged, and promoted honey products were brought together, they provided us with the means of discussing the bigger social stories surrounding the journeys of Palawan honey to the marketplace.

The fate of my collection of honey products was important to me; I hoped that it would remain together, and be able to support ongoing research engagements. To this end, I was thrilled to hand the collection over to NATRIPAL, the Indigenous peoples’ federation of Palawan, as an addition to their own display of sample products collected during their research and marketing activities. In the offices of the organization, we installed the display of honey products and conducted an additional workshop to discuss the collection’s relationship to my research and the federation’s ongoing work. Apart from their nationally and regionally awarded efforts to provide more favorable market relations for Indigenous people and to develop the brand of Palawan honey, NATRIPAL has lobbied intensively for the land and livelihood rights of Indigenous peoples across Palawan.

There are many challenges for environmental anthropologists to work through in considering how collections can be used as forms of engagement.  But there is great potential for harnessing approaches to objects, which have traditionally resided within the fields of material culture studies or museology, for research in environmental anthropology. Visual collections are not just symbolic of what we do throughout our research activities, or simply representative of the issues we are exploring.  They can also act as a means for thinking and talking through pressing social and environmental issues in ways that draw from the experiences researchers and those they work with already have.  And perhaps most thrilling, there is a possibility that such collections might have a vibrant life beyond the intentions of researchers. This is, of course, only one of many innovative pathways for collections to act as powerful tools of engagement.

 

Sarah Webb is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at The University of Queensland, Australia. The Wenner Gren Foundation funded the fieldwork for her thesis titled ‘Materials Reformed, Materials of Reform: Making Forest Commodity Value on Palawan Island, the Philippines’. Sarah’s ongoing research explores how the value of forest products is made through everyday social practices of production, circulation and consumption in the Philippines. Sarah can be reached at s.webb1@uq.edu.au.


[1] The name Palawan is often used to refer specifically to Palawan Island, the largest of many much smaller islands within Palawan province.  Palawan is also the name of one group of Indigenous peoples, rather than residents of Palawan more generally (who are called Palaweños or Palaweñas).

[2] The Tagbanua families I worked with call honey-harvesting experts manlalbet.

[3] Many Filipino consumers associate Palawan honey’s purity and quality with health benefits.  Palawan honey also has a reputation for being of exceptional taste.

[4] Dove, MR 1993, ‘A Revisionist View of Tropical Deforestation and Development’, Environmental Conservation, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 17-24. See also: West, P 2006, Conservation is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea, Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 214.

[5] During 2010-2012 a bottle of honey (often sold in a small reused plastic water bottle or glass gin bottle) ranged from about 30PHP to 200PHP.  Green honey (often sold in a slightly larger bottle) generally cost between 300PHP and 1200PHP.

[6] Michon, Geneviève 2005, Domesticating Forests: How Farmers Manage Forest Resources, CIFOR, Indonesia, pp. 52.

[7] It was important for the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) in the area of Palawan where I worked (and part of my agreement with them) that I not collect samples of so-called ‘raw materials’ for scientific testing, over concerns of bio-piracy.  Given this, and that I was focusing on the material culture associated with promoting honey, what I was collecting falls into (and explores) the local category of “finished products”.

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