On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres urged world leaders to ensure economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic include measures that tackle what he called the “even deeper emergency” of climate change. According to a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, directing stimulus funds toward green infrastructure will enable countries around the world to become less unequal and more resilient, cumulatively employ 100 million energy jobs and save trillions of dollars in comparison with a recovery that returns economies to “business as usual.”
While COVID-19 responses from leaders in Europe and Asia include plans to limit cars, and scale down greenhouse gas emissions, and in spite of a team of congressional leaders who have outlined what a just recovery would entail in the United States, the stimulus package that President Trump signed on March 27 did not deliver on green stimulus measures like a Green Jobs Guarantee or an attempt to require the airline industry to go carbon neutral by 2025 in exchange for $25 billion in bailout funds.
Short of coordinated leadership from Washington, some rural communities that are no strangers to economic hardship are turning inward to existing community-based efforts, and actively reimagining agriculture in the process.
One initiative in Lewisburg, West Virginia, aims to train unemployed or underemployed West Virginians in coal country to restore native vegetation on former mining sites throughout central Appalachia, a major part of which entails recovering bee populations. In 2016, the town won a multimillion-dollar settlement against coal mine operator Alpha Natural Resources for its violation of the Clean Water Act. Lewisburg used the funds to launch the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters, which is focused on strengthening communities in the region by developing a sustainable local economy and improving the natural environment.
According to a report commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission, between 2005 and 2015, coal production in Appalachia declined by 45 percent. In West Virginia, mining jobs fell a staggering 90 percent in 2017, driven by low natural gas prices. The poverty rate followed suit, explains Terri Giles, who helped launch the Appalachian Headwaters. “It’s not like we haven’t been affected for the past 50 years,” she tells Truthout in reference to the boom-and-bust nature of the coal industry. “But it’s reached a crescendo. The companies are leaving these communities ravaged,” Giles says. “You’ve got to have something else.”
Abandoned by companies like Blackjewel, a subsidiary of Revelation Energy, mines across the state were overtaken by autumn olive and kudzu, both invasive species. Although the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act required coal companies to cover the cost of cleanup, including efforts like replanting trees and replacing soil, the policy has been spottily enforced by state agencies. To compound these problems, in spite of the thousands of acres of unused land, much of the state was food insecure. “We’ve always been an exporter,” Giles says. “It started with salt, timber, coal, natural gas, all of that. None of that ever came back to West Virginia.”
When Giles was growing up in the nearby town of Hinton, everyone bartered. Her uncle used to trade his honey for the jars of canned vegetables she and her family spent months preparing. But as highways were carved into the hills, and big box stores popped up, the increasing access to goods produced elsewhere led to the disappearance of skills like gardening and tending to hives. Beekeeping is in West Virginians’ DNA, Giles says. The idea of trying to build up a honey economy made sense. Over the past decade, demand for honey in the U.S. has outpaced production. In 2017, 75 percent of honey was imported, much of it diluted with additives like corn or rice syrup — a process known as “honey laundering.”
In 2017, local beekeeper Mark Lilly began hauling in bees from across the state, as well as from Kentucky, the Carolinas and Florida to develop hives for local recruits interested in joining the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. He sought out the help of anyone willing to let 20 hives sit on their property as the bees got established. “They get the benefit of pollinators,” he says, referring to how the bees help regenerate the landscape by pollinating crops and trees that bolster forest cover.
In the meantime, locals of all ages, like James Scyphers, enrolled in beekeeping classes. Scyphers is a Vietnam veteran who worked as a coal miner for 16 years after returning from service. The transition to working outdoors was welcome, he told Voice of America. “I have learned that [bees are] the most fascinating insect … I have not had a better job in my 40-some years of working.”
Partners in the collective get regular visits from a mentor, who check on the hives. Appalachian Headwaters buys it from them directly for about $7 a pound. Once they go through the training program and are fully operational — taking care of around 12 hives — that means beekeepers can earn around $4,000 extra a year. In a county where the per capita income is $24,000, the extra cash makes a difference, Scyphers said.
Three years later, Lilly explains, with 77 partners, and 30 more set to join this year, the collective is almost producing all of its own bees locally. Following spring of 2020, Lilly expects the group will have their own queens, which will enable the collective to build nucleus colonies to give to new partners. As the bee populations become more established, they pollinate the local trees. Appalachian Headwaters is also training residents in the benefits of native plants. As partners get more into planting, bees will aid in revitalizing the land by helping pollinate. “It’s kind of a circle,” Lilly says. “It’s also helping the forest to regenerate trees that then attract more pollinators.”
And that’s part of what Giles says could make West Virginia honey, which is considered “tree honey,” a staple for people across the country. Bees begin the season with tulip poplar, then move onto black locust trees. In June, they pollinate basswood trees, and later sourwood trees, which makes premium honey because the bloom period is so short. “It’s like wine. You’re not going to buy a Bordeaux from the mountains of Appalachia,” she says. “But if you are a honey connoisseur, you’re going to seek out honey from Appalachia because we have the most diverse and oldest temperate deciduous forest.”
James McCormick, an army veteran who grew up in Scott Depot, West Virginia, has returned to active duty to help with COVID-19 response for the National Guard. As part of the response team, he has an intimate view into how the communities he’s been serving are dealing with the crises at hand. He says smaller, community-oriented places seem to be the most resilient. Agriculture education, through programs like the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, he tells Truthout, should be part of every public school education. He adds that the region needs more programs that retrain people out of work in developing local food systems. “I think we really need to focus on building those models that get us away from the Big Agriculture concept.” A January 2020 memo by Data For Progress points out that soil is eroding up to 100 times faster than at natural rates under current government-subsidized agricultural practices. By contrast, a shift to regenerative practices could sequester 10 percent of anthropogenic emissions.
Through the honey bee, Lilly says, partners learn about ecology. “We can show that what affects these small insects affects all of us. If we break the chain, we’ll see issues within society,” he continues. “A farmer can plant the seed and prepare the ground, then it rains. But if it isn’t pollinated, the process stops.”
As the country reels through what’s scaling up to be the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Lilly hopes communities he works with may be beginning to understand the benefits of non-extractive livelihoods. “We don’t have to look at the traditional sources of employment, whether it be mines, or the Walmarts or large chains,” he says. “Think outside the box. Think of what you can do in your area.”
Giles agrees. “The vision has to come from down here. It has to come from ground zero, from the small communities,” she says. “We are at a crossroads and we can change directions.”