food / travel

Yemen's Nomadic Honey Traders Face The Sting Of Civil War

Yemen’s itinerant beekeepers must follow the flowering season. But this nomadism, essential for their bees to produce this liquid gold known around the world, is hampered by the nation's ongoing civil war.

A beekeeper in Yemen in January
A beekeeper in Yemen in January
Louis Imbert

SHABWA — You will meet the beekeepers late at night on the roads, stacks of wooden lockers stowed in the back of their pick-up trucks. In war-torn Yemen, with its endless checkpoints and occasional explosions, no one travels as much as the beekeepers — migrating with their hives, chasing the flowers.

Honey is a serious business in Yemen. In this sparsely industrialized country, with its dizzying winding mountain roads, this liquid gold is reputed to be one of the best in the Middle East, if not the world. There is no need to engage in the national debate about which region holds the prize for the finest honey.

The soldiers at the roadblocks are clued into the situation: beekeepers can make a very handsome living, but it would be unwise to put a ransom on these farmers. "In any case, they are afraid of our bees. We usually pass by unchecked," laughs Saïd Al-Aulaqi, 40, a beekeeper in Shabwa, in the south of the country.

This little man, full of energy and good humor, is eager to take his bees from his region and this valley, a few kilometers from the departmental capital, Atak. The flowering season is over here, so he must bring his hives elsewhere. But, for the time being, "that is not possible ," he says, grumbling. Battles between the army and the Houthi rebels prevent him from taking the road linking Marib, the large tribal town in the north, to the mountains that surround the capital, Sanaa.

"When you're on the move, bees become unpredictable: it's hard to guess what they need," explains Farea Al-Muslimi, a hive owner in Wessab.

Saïd Al-Aulaqi has a method for traveling with a bit more certainty: he carries his bees at night while they sleep. If he isn't settled by dawn without having installed them properly, they could flee, disoriented. If he keeps them locked up in the hives, the heat would put their wax to the test.

Beekeepers travel in pairs or trios, but they need to talk to everyone.

The beekeeper stays up-to-date with the situation the war's front lines by way of WhatsApp groups. There is a very strong community spirit in this trade. Beekeepers travel in pairs or trios, but they need to talk to everyone else to find out where flowering is good, whether rain is causing flooding in the valleys, and where it's okay to congregate since the bees circulate between the hives. Al-Aulaqi also warns his neighbors when he gives sugar or medicine to his bees: they will either take advantage of it or choose to move away.

Photo: Mohammed Dahman Xinhua/ZUMA

On his WhatsApp group, Al-Aulaqi dissuades colleagues from joining him in a place where there are already too many of them. Today, he's looking for jujube trees, a thorny tree bearing a kind of bland and chalky type of date fruit.

Farea Al-Muslimi, founder of an independent think tank, the Sana'a Center, and beehive owner in the village of Wessab, says the more time one can stay in the same location, the better you can manage your bees. "But when we move around, the bees become unpredictable: it's hard to guess what they need," he explains.

In the summer, the beekeepers move to the Ibb Mountains in Dhamar, Al-Bayda. Winter is spent on the southern coast, near the ports of Aden, Moukalla or Bir Ali. In order to find a place that is not too cramped, that is away from livestock and from recent pesticide sprays, Saïd Al-Aulaqi and his companion, Adel Saleh Saber, don't speak with political authorities but instead with tribal chiefs. "Travellers are welcome, especially in the North, where tribal traditions are still strong," Al-Aulaqi said. "They are not racist towards people from the South."

The war has introduced new complications for these relationships. At the start of the conflict in 2015, Saïd Al-Aulaqi joined the fight against the Houthi rebels, who are originally from the North and who had taken control of Sanaa. They were heading towards his hometown of Assaib in the south and so the beekeeper left everything behind — his family, his hives — to join the fight on the frontline.

Wounded, Al-Aulaqi was immobilized for many weeks. "I lost 300 bees, they died without my care. It took me two years to recover," he says, lamenting "these useless wars."

Since then, he has been focused on trying to modernize his craft, which he learned on the job with his uncle. He admits he covets the more productive European beehives and is hoping to attain a higher quality honey in the large market of Atak, an important region in the south that enjoys relative peace.

The stings don't even make my skin swell anymore.

Saïd Al-Aulaqi's low-grade honey market segment is now becoming crowded. Throughout Yemen, men are leaving the cities, where jobs are scarce, to become farmers and beekeepers. "The market is flooded and our bees don't have enough to eat," says Al-Aulaqi. Prices have fallen by one third since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, according to merchants in Atak. Hei now sells his production at 200 Saudi riyals per kilogram (44 euros), while better quality honey can be exported to Saudi Arabia at up to 130 euros per kg.

On this November day, he and Saber are harvesting their second crop of the year, following the one in early spring. They open their small wooden crates, which they keep out of the sun under a blanket, a carpet, and a braided mat. They keep the bees apart with branches of oiled grass, smoking them with a mat rolled into a stick and set on fire like a big cigar.

Both men work unprotected. "The stings don't even make my skin swell anymore," says Al-Aulaqi, stretching out his uncovered arm. "I'm immune."

At night, alone under breathtaking skies, the two bee business partners talk politics and personal plans. Saber, who is 28, is counting on this harvest to finance his marriage to a woman from the neighboring province of Abyane. Al-Aulaqi, for his part, says he sees his wife and five children only about once a month. But, he adds: "It's better than working in Saudi Arabia."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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