THE BEEHIVE DESIGN COLLECTIVE is aptly named, aside from its lack of hierarchy. The activist art organization relies heavily on effective communication, cooperation and a decentralized division of labour to bring its intricate masterpieces to fruition. The Beehive grew out of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s and a collaborative mosaic installation in Machias, Maine, where they’re now headquartered. Bees steward two historic buildings in Machias; one offers studio and living space for members and visitors, the other serves as a community cultural center. Other Bees are spread across North and South America.
The Bees’ first big collaboration was in protest of Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations in Québec in 2001, and they’ve continued creating and sharing large-scale educational graphics to illustrate the impacts of – and resistance to – globalization, colonialism, resource extraction, biotechnology and other threats to communities and the planet.
Their latest project, the astonishing Mesoamérica Resiste campaign poster aims to capture the narrative of resistance to the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project (MIDP), or simply Project Mesoamerica. Introduced in 2001 as a 25-year, $20-billion infrastructure investment program, the plan was met with immediate resistance from indigenous groups, refugees and migrant justice organizers, rural communities, environmentalists, artists, farmers, women, students and countless others. Opponents are largely protesting a lack of community consultation and the disproportionate focus on infrastructure that will serve trade and corporations, rather than benefitting the community, health and social development of people in the region.
A decade in the making, built on years of research and involving over a dozen illustrators, the finished poster is a double-sided epic that stands 0.9 metres tall and nearly 1.8 metres wide. It features more than 400 species of animals and insects, from the stingless Melipona bee to quetzals to manatees, and at least 100 species of plants, including water hyacinths, vanilla and indigenous corn.
The outside of the poster shows the top-down view of the region, styled like an old colonial map and depicting many planned developments and the major corporate and state players. A banner across the top warns that our economic interventions and resource extraction methods have grown increasingly invasive and depleted the Earth’s biodiversity and resiliency. Inside is the ant’s eye view from the grassroots, at the base of the iconic Ceiba tree. It’s bursting with “stories of resistance and people building alternatives – building local and regional economies and defending their land,” explains Mandy Skinner, an on-and-off Bee since 2004.
The collective is currently touring with Mesoamérica Resiste, sharing the stories behind the scenes they’ve painstakingly depicted, of the lived experiences of those impacted by development projects, militarization and colonialism. While US, Canadian and European tours are focused on fundraising, Latin American tours will be about distributing free copies to people impacted by the MIDP. Skinner stresses the importance of “returning the graphics to people who we talked to on the original research trip and ... offering these as tools for their work that they shared with us.” The printing and distribution of posters in Latin America is also being funded by a Kickstarter campaign that more than tripled its goal of $36,000 in December 2013.
Despite the high costs of touring and their reliance on fundraising and poster sales, the Beehive is hardly proprietary about its work. All of their graphics are anti-copyright and they encourage people to share them widely and become storytellers themselves.
Explore the alternative economy
The scene you can explore above – a small section of the inside of the poster – is of a busy hive of Mesoamerican stingless bees building a "solidarity economy" and depicts a number of economic practices, both traditional and new, that people are using in Mesoamerica to build alternatives to the dominant capitalist economy, which doesn't serve them very well. The scene also explores issues around pollination and the importance of restoring native bee populations.
According to the collective, bees have a significant role in the big picture of development:
As European colonists invaded Central America, they brought with them the invasive European honey bee, which aggressively began to push the native Mesoamerican stingless bees out of their ecological niche. Today, deforestation, pollution and industrial farming are destroying habitat and causing the collapse of pollinator species all over Central America. Bees are an indicator species, and the drastic decline of their populations may forecast a larger ecosystem collapse. Restoring native bee populations is vitally important to the health of ecosystems and agriculture globally, and is directly linked to the survival of Indigenous peoples and beekeeping knowledge. Traditional beekeeping is an intimate relationship between bees, people, culture and the land.
Order the Resource Wars issue for the full story on the MIDP and the making of the poster.