America's Most Historic Yacht

Harvesting Lumber in Guatamala, Part 1

Posted By on April 13, 2009


By Bob McNeil

Our quest for mahogany for the restoration of Coronet has taken us to Guatemala.  Jeff’s wife, Gladys (born and raised in Buenos Aires), has been kind enough to search out sites in Central and South America in an effort to find supply of this wood to be used in the railings, skylights and other parts that are needed in this massive restoration.  We need about 12,000 board feet for the project.

Gladys, Jeff, Emilie, Magdalena, Lucas at Tikal

Earlier a group from IYRS had worked to acquire the oak from the Royal Danish Forest.  This oak is in storage and will be used for the frames (ribs), keel (pieces 11”x24” nearly forty feet long) and planking.  This effort is well documented and we hope to get back to the participants, both from the IYRS team and the officials at the Royal Danish Forest and film interviews to incorporate into “Ultimate Restorations”.  The acquisition of this wood is critical to the project.  Its quality is high, its sizing helpful in restoring the vessel that was launched in 1885.

When my youngest daughter Emilie approached me last winter with the question, “Dad, where can we go for Easter vacation?” I was stumped.  Her sister Katherine is studying at Bowdoin.  Their schedules do not match.  Her mother, Deborah, is studying for a degree in counseling and her schedule does not match, as a consequence Emilie assumed that it was just the two of us and exotic places call!

So, where to go?  Complicating the issue was the need to begin to look for a supply of mahogany for Coronet.  Gladys had made some calls based on internet connections and had a source in Guatemala that we could visit.  A large order merits going directly to the source both for quality and pricing.  A factor that came into play in planning travel was that the cutting of wood in Guatemala was limited to certain times of the year, ending mid April.  So drag Emily on this excursion?  You bet!  It would be a great experience.

Historic church Antigua, Guatemal

So on Saturday we flew to Guatemala City, met up that evening with our camera crew and documentary producer Terry Strauss and the next morning took the 6:50 am flight up to Flores, a historical center of northern Guatemala founded by the Spanish on an island in the lake, well protected from the Mayan natives.  The town is classic Spanish Colonial with a cathedral on the top of the island hill.  Quaint streets fortunately containing tourist from the world but not crowded, nor excessively “touristey”.  Interestingly on the peninsula across from the island still overgrown with rain forest, Mayan ruins rise as small hills.

The pyramids of Tikal

The next day Sunday we met up with Jeff, Gladys and their family and took a trip to Tikal, one of the Mayan city/state ruins of the region.   According to the historians the founders of these city/states were Mayan’s driven south from Chichania in Yucatan Mexico.  Well preserved, rich in history these restorations of the region merit visitation on the level of any of the great archeological sites of the world.  Returning late in the afternoon, a quick swim, rest and then a ponga ride on the lake to the island Flores for drinks and dinner.  Everyone had enjoyed the trip to Tikal and spirits were high.

Our team at Tikal

The next morning the wake up call came at 3:00 am.  Gladys had arranged coffee.  Our “guide”, Ranier, actually an agent of the company with permission to perform “sustainable harvest” met us at 3:30 am and off we went for a five hour ride to the forest.

First, a word about sustainable management.  There is a real effort achieve sustainable harvest in these forest.  The real problem is the burning of the forest for “agricultural purposes”.  The forest is about 65million hectares.  The harvest is restricted to a few hectares per season.

Emilie by a pond infested with crocodiles at Tikal

The trees (about five species) that are to be taken from these specified hectares are marked with a number.  They represent a small fraction of the total number of trees of that species in the plot.  They are individually cut and removed leaving the younger trees to continue to grow and mature.  The plot is then closed for the next thirty years.  Some of the larger trees are left for the purpose of maintaining the canopy so the eye of the biologist is looking hard at this sustainable management.

Bob, Ivo and Jeff discussing sustainability cutting at the mill just outside of Flores

In contrast the drive along the dirt road after leaving Flores was mile after mile of fields that have difficulty supporting any agriculture.  Crops of corn grow for the first couple of years and then they deplete the soil.  After a couple of crops the soil will not support their growth.  On to the next burn.  They will burn the forest in the hills as well as the flats.  The corn planting is by hand using a pointed stick to make a hole into which is dropped a seed which will sprout the next year.  It is hard to understand the thought process except this is true substance living with an exploding population.

The sustainable forest groups are aghast at the process.  Corruption is clearly a problem as is the population explosion.  Humble people eking out a living in thatched huts, subsisting on corn and a little chicken and beans is their maximum.  It was wonderful to stop and visit with them on the road (filming these people was part of the exercise at 6am).  They are kind and warm but their lot is cast as a sad case.  The agricultural acreage per person is very much greater than what occurs in other countries and the world’s climate spins down as a result.

Girl carrying corn to make tortillas - early morning

Four times in the trip inland we came to gates restricting movement of people.  They do not allow movement of people into the interior because they just exasperate the attempt to stave off the burning.  At each crossing there were armed guards, pleasant talk and move on the long road into the jungle.  The road was rough.  Five hours of being tossed and jumbled in the autobus.  High speed was 30mph most was 15-20.  Hot, no air conditioning and depressing because of the constant view of the burned out fields.  Finally after four hours of this jumbled drive we arrived in the unburned areas and began to enter the native forest.

The road to the lumber camp in the forest

When the trees are intact the scene is beautiful and rich.  High reaching limbs support the life known to many in this environment.  Hundreds of medicinal plants, tens of species that produce edible fruit.  The sustainable harvest is based upon fourteen species of wood that are carefully and with truly minimal impact extracted from the land.  A vibrant ecosystem that helps support itself and the rest of the world.  All in sharp contrast to the burned fields we had passed through that clearly did not sustain more than the most meager life.

A mahogany tree in the forest of Guatemala

We drove to the camp for the workers.  Thatched roofs over open cots with mosquito nets.  One central cooking/eating hut, open sides with a fire in one end that is the source of cooking heat.  The thatched overhead is browned with smoke that escapes through the open sides.  We are served a pleasant breakfast of eggs and tortillas freshly made on the spot.  The men are pleasant and hard working.  We learn more about the process that they try to use to keep the forest intact.

After the short break we are off to see the loading of the logs cut.  They go onto flatbed “eighteen wheelers”.  These trucks take a beating in driving up these roads to the camp.  The roads are rough.  When wet they are rutted by the trucks and pickups.  In the dry season (we are now at the end of that period) they are dusty and hard with potholes and rutting.  Each truck takes ten to twelve logs.  They each probably weigh a couple of tons so it is a good load.  The truckers chain the load and then drive from the loading down to the camp where there has been enough settling to enable the truck drivers to again reset the chains to ensure a tight load.

Logs loaded ready to drive to the mill

The cutting was of interest too.  They put a small road into the area where the marked trees are identified.  These roads are temporary and indeed in five years they are completely grown over and cannot be identified.  We walk to the tree through the forest.  The floor is dry.  Crackling leaves under the feet.  The bromeliads seem out of place on the dry bark.  Signs of animal life but mostly subdued.   A hawk flies over, a deer scampers through the woods.  The crew trims away the few entanglements at the base of the grey barked caoba.  We ask that they cut the buttress root wings separately so that we can use these with their curved grain to make corners for the taff rail of Coronet.  The cut is done in minutes.  The giant falls gracefully as planned by the crew (they maintain that it is the tree who tells them which direction to fall).  In a sense a sad end to a great member of our planet.  In a sense valid use by those who will enjoy its beauty for generations to come.  Viably harvested in a sustainable manner.

The tree for Coronet

Jeff and I walk down the trunk of the fallen giant.  A log three feet in diameter.  It is long and straight but about forty feet up the ten inch branches begin to come out and bend.  The leaves of the mahogany are compound with lancelet parts. The seed pod is indicates it is a legume.  None of this was evident to me at the beginning.  Another source of curved grain to make corners of rails and other ornamented mahogany pieces.

A “skidder” or large fork lift type vehicle picks the log up and drags it to the temporary road.  A clean job that will clearly overgrow in one season.  Back into the van for the long drive home.  Clean up after the hot trip and a pleasant meal in Flores.

Looking over the tree

The next morning, after a long and sound nights sleep we leave at nine am to the mill just a few miles away.  As all saw mills a humble place but quickly we see the machinery is modern and well maintained.  We meet two people, the first, Ivo, a German born who is working with the FSC (Forest Sustainable Council) to find ways to stop the burning of the jungles through the world, and the owner Fidel.

Cutting the logs on modern mill saws

All the conversations are in Spanish as they are not conversant in English.  Fortunately we have Gladys on our side.  We see their inventory of logs, we view their cutting of one of the species for flooring.   Water oozes around the foot wide band saw blade used to cut the log into a “kant”.  The green planks, automatically measured for width by the machinery, are moved by belting systems to stackers that put the boards onto stacks separated by sticks that allow air to pass through the wood for the long process of drying (one to two years).   The process we see continues beyond the simple cutting of the planks but continuing the milling process to finished product.

We spend an hour negotiating the acquisition of material for Coronet.  Given the times we are able to strike a deal that is fair to both sides.  Fidel is happy with the outcome.  We have saved a considerable amount in the process.  We agree to purchase existing stock that is drying in the sheds as well as specially cut pieces from the trees we witnessed fall.  The planks will be vertical grain and twenty four to thirty inches wide and twenty feet long.   This is the old “pattern stock” we used to be able to purchase in San Francisco and is all but gone now.  The wood will be shipped in a container to the United States and then stacked in Newport for the two year drying period when we will begin to use the material for the railings, skylights etc.  We plan to return to select the stock shipped as well.

Looking over mahogany inventory stacked and drying

Back to the hotel where we have found our children woke up about ten in the morning, walked into Flores, had breakfast and successfully shopped.  They had returned to the hotel enjoyed a quick swim and were ready for a quick lunch prior to packing up for the flight back to Guatemala City.  Emilie and I are off to Antigua for a quick day’s tour and then up to Miami, she to Bowdoin and I am flying to San Francisco to work on moving Cangarda closer to the canal.


One Response to “Harvesting Lumber in Guatamala, Part 1”

  1. Dave Reynell says:

    “Sustainable harvesting” is impossible unless one studies the ingrowth and mortality patterns of a rain-forest. This can only be done over time in carefully laid out research areas (the larger, the better) in which every tree is numbered and measured (d.b.h.). Returning every decade, to re-measure (d.b.h.) one gains some idea of the rate of diameter increment of different species.

    More important however, is getting a handle on the steady progression of recruitment, or ingrowth, and mortality : how the trees die ~ windthrow, fungal attack, crown loss etc.

    Rain forests are complex systems and simply selecting individual trees when needed can lead to abuse.

    In this case I do realise that the mahogany will be put to good and honourable use (and not sent to a Chinese pulp factory), but please do not believe all you are told about sustainable forest management.

Leave a Reply