Honeybees and the history of colonization

I jumped ahead in my planned narrative to share the most recent events, so now I’ll roll back a week and a half, when I was back in Mexico. There is still one story that I wanted to tell.

It’s called the “Riviera Maya” for a reason.

Now I must admit that my understandings of the origin of Cancún as a tourist destination, along with the other towns down Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, have come through stories that I have heard–they are not the result of an extensive investigation. That said, what I have heard seems like an entirely plausible scenario, although surely somebody who knows more on the subject is welcome to correct me.

Up until the 1970s, the Cancún area was little more than a coconut plantation and some nearby fishing villages, and much of the area was impoverished. The Yucatán Peninsula itself was populated mostly with Yucatec speaking Maya people, who had often resisted any attempts at colonization by Spain and were often hostile to the government of Mexico. This hostility flared up in the “Caste War” that flared between 1847 and 1901, when the Yucatec Maya declared independence and tried to force out all people of European descent.

A mural in Belize from a town established by refugees of the Cate War. Image credit: Mike Sandrock
A mural in Belize from a town established by refugees of the Cate War. Image credit: Mike Sandrock

The Mexican government did eventually subdue the revolt, and avoided annexation of the Yucatán Peninsula to the United States, but the region remained largely a backwater until 1970, when the government decided to finance construction of hotels on what was then called Isla Cancún. Apparently there had been some interest in helping raise the Yucatan’s Mayan population out of poverty, and given Isla Cancún’s cool, coral sand beaches and proximity to famous archaeological sites (like Chichén Itzá, pictured at the top of this post), it was chosen as the first location of development.

Of course, Akumal also has some very nice beaches:

Except there was a problem with the good intentions, it appears, since most of the people of the Yucatán did not speak Spanish as their first language. There is also a history of discrimination in Mexico (like any other country, even though most Mexicans won’t admit to it), and many of the new jobs that became available went to people who were able to speak Spanish and who were of mixed Spanish/Native American descent (mestizos, as they are called). In other words, most of the jobs (and money) went to Mexicans who moved from other parts of Mexico and were able to speak Spanish and (eventually) English, while the Mayan people who have been living on the Yucatán Peninsula for thousands of years were largely left behind. While I was in the area, I met people from all different states in Mexico, and those who worked in the nonstop line of resorts along the coast had at least a high school education and could speak Spanish and English well. I met very few Mexicans of Mayan descent until I went to the smaller towns.

Which brought me to Uxuxubi.

It was a fairly long walk.
It was a fairly long walk.

This was the spot at the end of my long march from Akumal, when the weather cooperated and I was on the hunt for more Vachellia plants. There were quite a few along the road, including one near the end which had eight spiders on a single plant.

Although it also had a hornets' nest, so I had to move carefully.
Although it also had a hornets’ nest, so I had to move carefully.
A sign on the door about responsible "slash and burn" agriculture--in Spanish, of course.
A sign on the door about responsible “slash and burn” agriculture–in Spanish, of course.

The road was closed, so since I had a long walk back and a full bottle of water, I turned back in the direction from which I’d come. Not long after, I was checking another Vachellia plant that I hadn’t initially seen, when I heard the buzz of a motor. In less than a minute, a man appeared on a scooter, and he looked to me to be 100% Maya.

He did speak Spanish, though.

Now it was probably a strange sight for him to see a tall, red-haired American risking ant stings while searching a thorny plant, but he still greeted me with a broad smile and I told him what I was doing. We the talked about wildlife in the area for more than half an hour, and he was very knowledgeable about all the region’s flora and fauna.

As it turns out, he works at Uxuxubi, which is apparently some sort of tourist destination and not the town I’d expected.

At the end of our conversation, I’d learned a lot about him, such as the fact that he has a son who is disabled and can’t walk or talk, and my new friend referred to him as his “angelito,” or little angel. He also told me that he is working to cultivate honey from native, stingless bees that the Maya have known about for centuries, even though they are not as heavily cultivated as before.

Who wouldn’t want to work with a stingless bee? Image credit: Eric Tourneret

One problem that I have with modern agriculture (and apiculture–the raising of bees) is that most modern methods are geared towards maximum production. As a result, the quality often suffers, or traditional agriculture methods are replaced. This is what has happened with the stingless bees, since the Africanized (a.k.a. “killer” bees), which are a cross between European honeybees and African honeybees, produce much more honey. In that drive for high production, however, the native bees are displaced, much like what happened to the Maya peoples with the development of Cancún.

My friend is working against this trend, trying to make a product of high quality that doesn’t resort to the monoculture (one intensive farming practice) of Africanized bees. I am hoping that somebody will want to support his efforts, and that he can gain some benefits from his work for himself and his family.

He also gave me a ride back from Uxuxubi, which was a really nice thing because my feet were really tired. And of course, he refused to let me pay him anything for the favor.

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