Last Night in Carrillo

On my last night here in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, I had dinner and drinks with Alfredo and Monica. Monica is actually the one who, almost completely on her own, set up my next stop for me. Her friend Mauro is a wildlife vet studying vultures around the Calakmul reserve in the neighboring state of Campeche, and he always needs volunteers in his field studies.

    Last week, Monica very casually mentioned that she had talked to her friend and that he wanted me to email him. A couple of emails and some rearranged plans later, I was on my way out, almost a week ahead of schedule.

    As we were drinking, Monica stopped holding back all those questions about the US she hadn't yet asked me. Monica was a sociology major in college, so a lot of the questions were along those lines. After a couple of these, I asked her what her impression of the US was, and the results were quite interesting:
"I see the US as a really violent place, with a lot of problems with guns and drugs... but also as a place with a lot of advancements, a lot of education, a lot of money"
     The first part was a surprise to me, especially since we think of Mexico as a really violent place! When all you ever see of the US is news and (mostly violent) movies, its really not surprising at all that you would have that impression.

     The conversation drifted to Columbine and other school shootings, to the "Lockdown" shooting drills  held at my High School in Gloucester (VA), which were really just an excuse to search our lockers for drugs. At the mention of lockers, Monica's eyes lit up and her age halved itself.
"You have lockers?"
      I knew exactly where her mind was. You see, when Monica and I were growing up in our different parts of Mexico, we both formed an impression of the US based largely on the television program "Saved by the Bell." Much of the show's dialogue took place by the lockers at their high school, so when I learned that my family would be moving to the US, I naturally imagined myself standing with one hand on my locker, talking to some hot American "babe."

      I was quite disappointed to learn that, in fact, there are no lockers in the 5th grade, but Monica never moved to the US, so she still had that Saved by the Bell imagery in her mind.

      Hey, its better than Columbine.


Wood Production in a Mayan Village: Research Results

Before you let the boring title scare you, I'll have you know that these results are actually quite interesting.

For the first stage of field work, where I measured board production with Santa Maria Poniente's new microsawmills, I calculated how much work it took to slice up a log, as well as how much of the log was wasted.

On average, it took about four man hours (hours x # of people on each task) to cut a log into slabs.* Sounds like a long time, especially when compared to a conventional sawmill. However, you have to remember that these people badly need work, so labor intensiveness might actually be a good thing. With a softer (and more valuable) wood like Mahogany, that number is almost cut in half. The problem here is not labor, but gasoline and oil - the chainsaws don't run on sweat.

From an initial log, about 40 % of the wood ends up in the board to be sold. Apparently thats quite good, but it sounds depressingly low to me. 60% of the wood goes to waste, and that's not even counting the rest of the tree that stays in the woods! Some of that waste is unavoidable - since we're using chainsaws to cut slabs, the thickness of the saw (and a bit more for bouncing) turns to sawdust as the Ejidatarios turn logs to boards. Given enough of this sawdust, you can apparently sell it, as the people at the Chunhuhub Sawmill do.

The rest of the waste has a bit more potential. Its composed of perfectly solid wood scraps that were simply too small or too curvy to fit into a boring, straight board. The Ejidatarios say they'll use the small ones for firewood, the long tops and bottoms of logs for fencing. "Nothing goes to waste here" one man told me as I was measuring the scraps. Thats a good enough use, but it would be nice to get these people some money for the stuff too.

I've been talking to Hector about natural edge furniture, an idea I also tried to push on ASD when I was there. The basic idea is to use the beautiful, curvy edges of trunks to form the edge of tables, desks or benches, rather than that boring straight edge. It would definitely save a lot of wood from the scrap heap, but its mostly an export market that requires connections.

When I went into the forest in stage two, I measured work and output again, though it was a bit less accurate since its impossible to keep track of everyone at once with those pesky trees blocking the view. The longest single task of every day, surprisingly enough, was just getting out to the woods on that rocky, slow going road. All in all, it took 1 1/4 man hours** to get each tree out to the log landing, at a rate of 23 trees per day.

Unfortunately, much of that labor (and money) is lost to outsiders who come in to operate the Treefarmers, hook logs to them, and even ocassionally cut the actual trees as well.

In the final and most exciting/depressing stage, Valentin and I measured the impact of the Treefarmer on the plant communities it crushes on its way to the trees. In a single day the treefarmes pummeled almost half a hectare (1.2 acres) of forest to get at 16 trees. "Forest" is a slippery word, so here's a table (first table on the blog!) showing what exactly got trampled.

Tamaño (cm) Especie Porcentaje
Menos de 1 Desconocido (bambu?) 31.10%
Menos de 1 Limonaria 17.49%
Menos de 1 Zapotillo 16.63%
Pequeño, de 1 a 4 Laurel 27.27%
Pequeño, de 1 a 4 Zapotillo 17.75%
Pequeño, de 1 a 4 Limonaria 8.23%
Chico, de 5 a 10 Zapotillo 28.57%
Chico, de 5 a 10 Yaiti 14.29%
Chico, de 5 a 10 Jabin 7.14%
Chico, de 5 a 10 Kekemche 7.14%
Intermedio, 11 a 20 Yaiti 26.67%
Intermedio, 11 a 20 P'erezkuts 20.00%
Grande, 21 a 30 Kaskat 25.00%
Grande, 21 a 30 Tas ta'ab 25.00%
Grande, 21 a 30 Tsubint'ul 25.00%
Grande, 21 a 30 Tzubinche 25.00%
Adulto, mas que 31 Zapotillo 100.00%

Attached and in Spanish are the guide I gave to OEPF to describe the data, and the data sheets themselves. Enjoy.***

Guia a los datos

Board Production

Production in the Woods

Destruction in the Woods

Extra Data




* As I was taking data, one ejidatario made a pretty astute observation: "You shouldn't be taking this data now, you should take it once we actually know what we're doing." Since I was recording data from the first three days of learning about the micro-sawmill system, one should expect productivity to rise as they gain more experience. The other problem with this whole exercise is the low sample size, so it should really be taken as a way to get an idea of whats going on as opposed to real science. Maybe someday I'll go back and measure again.

** Sexist term anyone? But hey, its a standard measure of productivity. The fact is they were all men, so oh well. 

*** If you enjoyed this post, that makes you a forestry geek. Congratulations!

Handmade Chicle

After a long conversation with John Curtis, I headed over through the dark city streets to Alfredo and his girlfriend Monica's house. I had a lump of raw chicle (chewing gum) in my backpack, and on the way there I picked up some "Dulce de Miel" (honey caramels).

The plan was to cook up a batch of chicle and try to make a prototype of a natural, handcrafted chewing gum with a honey caramel as the core. Far from being just a tasty treat, this product, if successful, could cause a small revolution in the dying chicle industry. Up until now, you see, the Chicleros have always been producers of a raw material. That raw material had a brief but impressive boom before going bust when petroleum replaced the Chicozapote tree as the world's source of gum base.

Though the market for chicle as a raw material has waned, the market for its final products, chewing gum and other candies, has never been stronger. If we can get just a few chiclero families to make and sell chewing gum directly, there's no telling what could happen.

But first, we need to cook. We threw a brick of dry, hard chicle into a pot of water, boiled it a bit, and soon it began to soften as the water burst into thousands of tiny air bubbles. Turns out, we used a bit too much water, and the stuff began to fall apart! Luckly, the core was still solid enough to hold together, yet pliable enough to work with. I pulled some out and tried to wrap it around one of the carmels, but soon learned that a) the carmel was way too big and b) chicle is really sticky!

Luckly, Monica had seen chicle being processed before, and knew that the stuff could only be worked with wet hands. Alfredo figured out how to cut the carmels without shattering them, and Monica expertly wrapped a wad of chicle around half a carmel. Still too big, but we gave it a try anyway.

The honey flavor was really strong and lasted only a few minutes, but the proof of concept was secure. The stuff was delicious!

"Of course you're gonna say that, Alfredo shot us down when we described the flavor, "we need to test it out in the field, with the people."

True, but we had at least proven that one doesn't need chemistry or machinery to make a passable candy from locally available materials. With a little marketing and taste testing, it should be possible to start a chicle revolution, one family at a time.


More Mayan Crafts!

On the way out from dinner, John and I checked out his friend Caesar's wood craft store. A sampling of the works:

A traditional Mayan instrument with some Tepezquintles carved into the part you hit. The piece was carved out what looks suspiciously like bamboo... is there a native bamboo in the Americas? Or is it just all alien invasives from Asia? I've been pondering this for 5 years, I should just look it up.*

A beautiful piece of Natural Abstract sculpture. Behind it you might see a woodblock carving like the ones at Moda Maya, as well as what look suspiciously like Sonoran Palo Fierro sculptures, carved out of a local wood with similar properties.

A wooden vase with some fake flowers in it. I asked how one could put real flowers in it. Ceasar's wife replied you could put a tube in it... I'm not convinced, though it is an awesome vase.


* I did look it up, and it turns out the Americas are a huge repository (spanish link) of bamboo diversity! There are more than 400 species of Native Bamboo in the Americas, most of them south of the US border, although there are two species in the States. In my home US state of Virginia, any bamboo you normally see out in the woods was introduced into people's yards and has escaped, becoming a dangerous weed that can choke out entire forests and is almost impossible to stop. It seems like a plant as useful as bamboo should never become a weed, and it makes me wonder why we are cutting down Panda habitat in China to make flooring, chopsticks and decks when we have bamboo weeds that need to be cut down here at home.

Third Culture Kids

John Curtis is one of those people who can talk your head off, because much of what he says is so interesting that you simply can't stop listening. Tonight at dinner, we talked about a concept that I had understood my whole life but never had a word for: Third Culture Kids. This will sound extremely familiar to some of you, while others won't know what the heck I am talking about.

When a child is either born of two different cultures (I'm Mexican and Gringo) or spends their childhood in multiple cultures (I lived in Mexico and India before moving to the US, John Curtis was a state department kid), the child usually does not feel a part of either culture. There are several ways one can react to this: the kid might simply shut down socially, they might reject one of their cultures and try really hard to be accepted by the other, or they might combine the two (or more!) cultures to create their own, unique, "Third" culture.

These Third Culture Kids tend to have more in common with each other, regardless of the cultural mix within them, than to "normal" people from any culture. Those who make it through their teenage years tend to behave as cultural bridges, seeing commonalities rather than differences since they've been "different" their whole lives.

The most prominent example of a Third Culture Kid in the world right now is, of course, Barack Obama. An absent African father, a white family, and a few formative years spent in Indonesia are part of that makes him who he is today. The fact that the US elevated a TCK gives me a lot of hope that as we become more common, we'll stop being weird, uncategorizable rejects and become valued cultural bridges.

Third Culture Kids Unite!


World Environment Day

Apparently today is the Dia Mundial del Medio Ambiente,* as decreed by the United Nations, which people actually listen to outside of the US. I learned this while walking through the plaza in the center of Felipe Carrillo Puerto on my way to breakfast. Seeing a group of schoolchildren dressed as trees, and surrounded by what must have been all the kids from all the schools that day, I decided it was worth a listen:

When I did make it to breakfast, a lady on the radio had some interesting things to say about World Environment Day. After reading a story about an Environment Day Parade (which I thought sounded kinda awkward), she went on to make a comment that I shall translate and paraphrase here:

"World Environmental Day doesn't require parades. It requires that each of us take a look at our impact on our Earth and not just for one day, either, but every day. There should be World Environment Days 365 days a year...
How many plastic bags do we use when we go to the store? We used to carry [Mayan word for traditional cloth bags] with us to the store every day, but now we use a new plastic bag every time we buy any little thing. We need to go back to the old [bags]...
In the United States, everyone is using reusable cloth bags...
Over there in the United States, they use paper, recylcable paper, biodegradable paper, instead of plastic. In the United States, they don't use plastic anymore!"

We better get on that, guys and gals.


* World Environment Day on June 5 2009, so that gives you an idea of how behind on posts I am. Basically, I have them all written down in my notebooks and am transcribing them, along with pictures and video, to the Blog. 

Breaking: Indigenous Mayans Beaten Just South of Cancun

November 25, 2009 - The following is a translation of a press release I received from contacts in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico. It describes the situation that began when the government promised to reimburse farmers for crops lost due to the lack of rains during the monsoon season this year. The government lowered the reimbursement to 50%, prompting the farmers to block the main highway leading to Cancun in protest. Police then went through town and apparently beat and detained anyone who looked like an indigenous farmer. This is exactly the sort of situation that is becoming more and more common as climate change leads to conflict. The original document is attached.

Why are the Indigenous Mayans of Quintana Roo being Beaten and Detained?

    Through this medium we want to inform of the arbitrary detentions that have been suffered by the ejidatarios (communal landowners - editor's note) of the Mayan communities of the municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Given the events that took place on the highway from Felipe Carrillo Puerto to Cancun the past night of November 24 where various groups of ejidatarios took the aforementioned highway in protest of the insufficient pay of 50% offered by the SEDARI (The state Secretariat of Agricultural and Indigenous Development - ed.) due to failure of farmer's crops from [this year's] lack of monsoon rains.

    Following these events state and federal police officers have taken illegal actions beating, abusing and encarcelating the ejidatarios; it is worth mentioning that these acts were realized in the interior of the city, in the streets, and even in the central park on the 24th and towards people who because of their simple appearance were considered to be ejidatarios, detaining in this matter 228 campesino farmers.

    We mention also that these actions of the peasantry are a product of the evident inequality and the contrasts that exist in the state of Quintana Roo[, Mexico] which receives a great deal of investment in the north, in the turist zones and we see that there are no development projects for the mayan communities that live in the same conditions as they did five hundred years ago while these communities are owners of the natural resources of the state.

    For these reasons we demand the liberation of the 228 citizens who are imprisoned.

For the prompt and immediate liberty of the 228 imprisoned indigenous mayans of Felipe Carrillo Puerto! 

Ejido commissioners and Municipal delegates of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo

Felipe Carrillo Puerto, on the 25 of November of 2009

* Original Document can be downloaded here.

**Click here for a good history on ejidos and ejidatarios. 

Maya Fashion

I took the van from Santa Maria Poniente back to Carrillo on Saturday, and I've been organizing my data from the field work in that ejido over at the OEPF* office. At lunch today, I checked out "Moda Maya," a clothing and crafts store set up by OEPF to sell products made in the Ejidos.

Among their wares are some really cool wood carvings, mixing ancient Mayan themes with modern cutting techniques and imagery, and also a lot of traditional embroidery work. The embroidery, worn mostly by older Maya women at this point, is at great risk of becoming extinct, so its heartening to see traditional embroidery used on more modern "sexy" designs.

I feel like a lot of this stuff would do quite well in the US, and hope to bring some of it in one day. Check it out and tell me what you think:

Woodblocks and Jewelry Boxes

"The Ancient"

Some of this handmade embroidery is really intricate, and I think there is a bit of competition among traditional Maya women to see who can do the most elaborate and colorful designs.

A Mayan take on a western classic, the little blue dress.

Doña Eunice Be Chuc, who runs the shop, and me.

*OEPF stands for "Organicacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales", which is the community owned forestry group I've been working with in Quintana Roo. Their website is a work in progress but can be found here:


The small bikepath through the woods to the laguna does a good job of concealing it until you're there.

Suddenly you catch a glimpse through the vegetation and are shocked by the size of the thing. If this is how big the lagoon is, how big is the 16 hectares of forest that engulf it?

I asked around about this cayuko later. Turns out it doesn't belong to anyone in particular, since everyone uses it.



I've measured production and effort in the forest, so now it is time to measure the most "environmental" and the most depressing variable - destruction. Specifically, the question I'm trying to answer is
"How much forest is crushed to pull out one tree?"
I've hired a "tecnico" from the ejido, Valentin Canul, who I noticed last week had an uncanny ability to remember plant names. Well, uncanny from my perspective anyway, here its just a little better than normal.

Valentin is a local tecnico, meaning he was trained by the ejido union, Organizacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales de la Zona Maya (OEPF) to do tree inventories and collect forestry data. Since the hurricane hit, he's been working on a tree inventory for the Ejido, a requirement before new logging permits are issued. He's not paid for this work, but he knows there won't be a job for him or others in the ejido if they don't get new permits.

He explained a little bit of the methodology* for the tree surveys while we were trying to figure out how to answer my question. The ejido's property is divided into a series of transects, or straight lines across the land.

Starting on the transect line and moving away from it in both directions, Valentin or another tecnico measures all seedlings (over 5 cm tall) for the first 10 meters. From the 10 meter line, he measures only the big stuff, everything larger than 20 cm measured at the height of his chest.** From the 25 meter line to the 100 meter line, he only measures the commercially valuable species.

With this (rather impressive) amount of information, the government and OEPF can gain an accurate picture from which to decide how much wood can be harvested each year. Valentin says they have enough information right now for the next 5 years in their 25 year cycle.

In order to make my measurements of destruction fit into OEPF's methods, I used their size classes and worked out the methodology with Valentin. We decided to follow the Treefarmer, which is a sort of cross between a bulldozer and a tractor used to clear a path to a tree and pull out the log. The Treefarmer is the most destructive part of the logging operation, and its also the part we're hoping can be eliminated once the microsawmills take over and people are pulling boards rather than logs out of the forest.

We spent the day behind the Treefarmer measuring 30 meters with our measuring tape before stopping to  count all of the plants in our sample. The sample was 1 meter long and as wide as the obvious impact of the tree farmer, which varied from 4 meters to 7 meters. Valentin identified all the plants, gave me their names in Spanish or Mayan (whichever one was shorter) and I simply wrote them down. It felt like Valentin could have done this on his own, but I did insist on counting all the plants, even the tiny ones, which might not have happened if it was just him.

Turns out, it took almost half a hectare (1.2 acres) of Treefarmer destruction to get 16 trees, about 0.03 hectares (0.07 acres) per tree. Thats a half hectare of impact and soil compaction, but nobody knows how well the Treefarmer trails recover after they've been used. Of course, my sample is also really low because I was only able to get out there and measure this for one day, so its best you think of it as a detailed anecdote.

Attached is my data, categorized in Spanish. Checka checka checka if you think its cool-



* I realize this is a really geeky article, but I always wish I could find stuff like this on the internet so here it is! Enjoy it, rising forestry geeks.
** This measurement, called Diameter at Breast Height or DBH, is a standard measurement in forestry that has survived the ages despite its innate subjectivity as to what "Breast Height" is.

Savannas, Huamiles, and "Orchids"

The road out to the logging site is a tour through the diverse local ecology. In addition to the forests themselves,* there is also a seasonally flooded "Savannah," fallow slash and burn farms that are grading back into forest called "Huamiles" and the Matorral, a sort of thorn scrub forest that gets a little less flooding than the Savannah.

   The Savannah is as interesting as it was unexpected. Formed around a vast floodplain and covered in crawfish holes, the savannah has annual floods and muddy (probably anoxic) soils to keep trees from taking root. The landscape offers sweeping views that are impossible from within the forest, and a light morning mist makes it all the more sublime.

   There´s a very distinct line that separates the savannah (and the lagoon that forms there) from the thorny Matorral.** Beyond the line is a scrubland of white bark and green leaves. Among the brambles, one starts to notice what the locals call "Orquidias" a word that cognates to orchids but has been expanded here to include most epiphytes. Though there are a few true orchids, the majority of what people are calling by that name are classified as bromeliads, the little house plants with a water cup in the center.

Closer to town are the "huamiles" the old milpas (traditional slash and burn farms) that have been left fallow after one to three years of harvest. I was surprised at how quickly these regenerated - after one year, you could barely see an old corn storage structure rising up over the palm trees. After 3 to 5 years, it begins to feel like a forest again, with Zapote and tzalam (two valuable tree species) growing back on their own. Usually these huamiles are not allowed to grow back into forests but instead are cut, felled, and burned (roza, tumba, quema) back into milpas after four to seven years.

We often hear about slash and burn farming as an environmental swear word, but most of that bad rep comes from areas where regeneration is slow and community ownership of the land non-existent. The fact that these people can slash and burn the same plot of land multiple times gives me quite a bit of hope that they will not begin to eat away at the core of their forest anytime soon.

Though it will happen eventually.


* Wild areas with trees on them are classified by height of vegetation in Mexico - monte alto, monte mediano, monte bajo refer to tall, medium, and short vegetation
** I drew this little diagram in my notebook. Not the best artist, but I hope it helps!

Nececitamos Capital

The people learning to use the microsawmill* weren't able to work today (friday) or last monday, in large part because they had no gas or oil to run their machines, and no money to buy the materials they need to work. This seems to be a common problem with project funding in Mexico- grants often pay for an initial upfront cost, such as buying machines or planting trees, but fall short when it comes to long-term support needed to operate, maintain, or care for that initial investment.

Another example of the problem is the dozen or so ejidos that received woodworking machinery to build furniture, but can't turn the machines on because their villages don't have high voltage electricity. Only one ejido, Reforma Agraria, is operating a woodshop because they could afford to bring in an electrician to convert the machines to run on the lower voltage.

In this case, there's a gap between learning to operate a microsawmill for a few weeks and producing enough boards to make the first sale. In the words of one** of the ejidatarios, "We need capital."

These guys pretty much know how to make boards, and have the machines to do it. They also have the will to work, and want this project to succeed because they see the value it will add to their wood. They went door to door yesterday and today trying to find enough motor oil to keep the chainsaws going. The problem is, until they can make that first sale, they won't have the money to keep producing boards and make that first sale.

Its a catch 22 from hell.


** I don't want to get anyone in trouble, so I won't mention names.

Spanish Vs Maya: Colonialism Continues

Maya is the first language of the people of Santa Maria Poniente, and their ability to speak Spanish varies widely by age, gender, and amount of time spent working on the outside. I've met people who couldn't speak a word of Spanish, those who understand it but can't speak but a few words, and people who speak so well you would never guess this is a second language they picked up as an adult.

The age and gender stratification is really interesting. Older women are the least likely to speak Spanish, since they've neither had schooling in Spanish as a child or worked outside the village as an adult. Older men have worked on the outside, but were never taught Spanish in school, so their ability varies widely and by effort. Younger women have been schooled in Spanish but don't normally leave the village, so the Spanish fades with age. Finally, younger men and children of both genders are the strongest Spanish speakers, since they have constant reinforcement from either school or work.

At the moment, school is taught entirely in Spanish, but there's a popular policy proposal on the table to make Maya mandatory in every school in Quintana Roo. The state of Yucatan just passed a similar law, and its looking very possible that it will happen in Quintana Roo as well. Its one of those rare political moves that could single handedly rescue and entire language and culture form slow, generational extinction.

Variations of Mayan are spoken in four Mexican States and in four countries, so I doubt very much that it could ever go completely extinct. Compared with Mayo and Yaqui, the native languages of Sonora (where I'm from) spoken by a few thousand people each, Maya is in a pretty good place.

Local extinctions, however, are entirely possible, a fact that the Mayans of Santa Maria seem keenly aware and afraid of. I've heard horror stories about other villages were everyone speaks Spanish, about kids who come back from Cancun refusing to speak Maya, about young men who speak perfectly well but are ashamed to use the language of their parents. The good news is that there's also a lot of Mayan pride, a relatively recent effect that is just starting to kick in.


* Picture is of Cecilio Yam Can, who speaks pretty good spanish and learned as an adult.
** I'm reposting this to better reflect the chronosequence. Sorry for the repeat!

The Other Team

The "Patrón"* sponsoring Placo's salvage logging team has pulled out, saying that the wood is now so rotten and the forest so thick that it is no longer worth it for him to log in Santa Maria. Therefore, today I monitored the time and output for the other team of salvage loggers.

The main difference between the two is the management. While most logging teams have a field supervisor, representing the interests of the ejido and making sure its management plans are followed, this team has a second, extra "supervisor" who represents the interests of the Patrón.

The guy, we'll call him Umhelio, started the day out by informing us that "the boss doesn't want any more mahogany." Apparently, when the global economy tanked, it took with it the market for precious, luxury woods like mahogany. Because of its high price, pulling out the dead mahogany rather than letting it rot is a boon to the community but a burden on the Patrón.

"Supervisor" Umhelio (pictured at left) constantly called everyone "amigo," the Spanish equivalent of a demeaning, obnoxious "buddy." He bickered with the ejido's supervisor Miguel (pictured above, pseudonym used) over every tree, arguing that this one was too rotten, that one looked too crooked, the other one too hollow. All of this might have been fine had he been correct, but over and over again he was proven wrong by the rest of the group.

At one point, when he had reiterated that the boss did not want any more caoba (mahogany), Miguel looked Umhelio straight in the eye and told him "Yes, but we have a contract. A certain about of caoba for every tzalam** you pull out."

"Oh yes buddy, of course buddy, of course, of course buddy."

In between all of these arguments, I had a great conversation with one of the "Chalanes" (helpers) about Mayan culture and the kids that are not adopting it.

But that's another story.

* "Patrón," the word often used to describe a boss or the funder of an activity, tastes a little bit of colonialism to me.
** Tzalam is a local hardwood, which has recently become very popular because it is both extremely strong and extremely cheap.

Featherless Chickens!!!

Just a couple of fun videos today:

These were meant to be two takes of the same shot, so its a little repetitive, but I think you'll appreciate seeing this strange little creature in action:


Food Independence

Its monday, but I wasn't able to work today. More on that later. I did manage to make it out to Cecilio Yam Can's land and talk to him about the food he grows for his family. The most exceptional part about it is that its completely unexceptional. So check out the interview (in Spanish) and let me know what you think:

If it seems like I'm leading him to say particular things, thats because I am. I don't think he had ever been interviewed before, and it felt like he wasn't sure what to say and was trying to say what he I wanted him to say.

I can say that we had pretty much the same conversation as we were walking around before the interview, although it was much less awkward since there were no cameras involved. Needless to say I need to work on my interviewing techniques.


Living in the Tree

I'll let the video introduce itself:


Life and Sustainability in Santa Maria Poniente

Its Sunday, so there's not much to do besides swing on my hammock and think about how awesome this place is. The view out my window pretty much says it all: a house made of wooden poles and thatched with palm leaves, a coconut tree, a stone wall overgrown with cacti.

The outside world could literally disappear and life here would go on without a blink. In fact, it might even improve for lack of alcohol and cultural imperialism. The forest would continue to produce enough poles for housing and palm leaves for roofing. Coconuts, limes, oranges, guayas, mangoes, and more would still grow in the front yards of those houses. And judging from the road out to the forest, you'd better believe there's enough stones to go around.

Beyond the home, the ejido is also essentially self-sufficient in terms of corn, beans, vegetables, spices (except salt), and even eggs and meat. Though most people say they don't get enough meat, there's plenty of chickens around. The town is full of animals, from chickens and turkeys (both wild and domestic breeds) to pigs and the occasional cow further out. The forest also provides in this regard, as twice this week one of the Canul brothers has come back from the milpa with a deer.

How many communities can claim that salt is the only thing they'd need if the world dissapeared?


* "Need" can be a relative term, and most of the people of Santa Maria would tell you that they also need health care, education, electricity, and water, all of which do come in from outside. The main point is to compare this community to say, a standard US suburb, which could produce none of its food or building materials in the present configuration.

** This happens to be the 100th blog post I've written since embarking on this journey. WOOT!

Salvaging Dean

I've been documenting a logging operation in Santa Maria Poniente, trying to keep track of how much wood is extracted, how long it takes to do so and (in the next phase) how much forest is destroyed in the process.

A few years back, the ejido had a pretty good forest management plan. The Permanent Forested Area (5,000 ha = 12,355 acres) was divided into 25 equal sections, one of which would be selectively logged each year for 25 years before repeating the cycle. They were on year 7 when hurricane Dean hit.

In the two years since then, Santa Maria's been doing what the people in the biz call "salvage logging" - pulling out only those trees that have been knocked down or damaged by the storm. The problem now is that the wood is starting to rot, making the amount of usable wood per tree less and less.
As I'm following Placo the sawer around, he rejects several trees because of the rotting issue. He gets paid by the log, but a crappy log won't get him any money because it will only get rejected at the log landing. So he carefully inspects each tree before deciding whether its worth his time, sometimes making an exploratory cut to check out the wood.

Once he decides to get into a tree, his job is to get it on the ground (if its only partly fallen) and cut a saleable, relatively straight log out of it. I was impressed by how little wood is pulled from each tree. Probably a little under a third of the usable wood, just the initial straight part of the trunk, was taken from each tree. There's gotta be a way to get that up, but I can't figure out how to get past the fact that its just not worth it for these guys to pull out branches.

As we were traveling through the forest, Placo showed me the navigation system they were using to find trees. At each trailhead and at each split in the trail there's a stick pointing ahead and displaying the number and type of tree. After the tree finders identify potential trees, a field boss comes through to make sure the're really there (the treefinders get paid by the tree) and that they're legal. In this case that means making sure the tree is either standing dead, leaning forward and about to fall or on the ground already. If the tree's legit, the field boss puts an "R" on the marker. And I thought Placo was just walking around at random!

It's been one of the hottest days I've experienced so far, in large
part because of the lack of tree cover from the storm damage. "El Monte antes no era asi," ("The Hills didn't used to be like this") I hear over and over again here in the ejido. "You used to be able to see a deer from 200 meters (think yards) away. The hurricane knocked everything down."

Santa Maria (and its forest management plan) is waiting for the hills to get back to normal. Standing here in a hot, canopy gap ridden forest, the product of a hurricane cycle predicted to rise in frequency and intensity, I can't help but think this might be the new normal.


El Monte

After three days of keeping track of everything that happened at the micro-sawmill, I attempted to do the same for the cutting and skidding operation. Let me tell you, keeping track of the times and tasks of everyone's job is a lot harder in the woods!

The sawyer, the treefarmer operator, the "jefe de campo" or field boss, each basically do their own thing, making it impossible to keep track of everything simultaneously. Add to that my lack of physical fitness, my unpreparedness for the hot, humid climate, and the fact that all the trails were made for people about a foot and a half shorter than me, and you get a long, sweaty day.

The longest single task, surprisingly enough, was simply getting out to the woods. The land here is very rocky, as is the road, so it takes about an hour to get to the active logging site. Along the way, there's plenty of road maintenence to do, especially when whole tree tops fall into the road overnight:

Once we got to the log landing, Placo the sawyer gave me a choice- "Are you going with the treefarmer or with us?" Since it seemed he had a more complex task, I decided to go with Placo. I had no idea we would be gone all day! If I did, I would have probably brought along my food, or at least my water.


Goofing off with the kids

Many of the children in Santa Maria Poniente seem to be afraid of me. They run away from me on the street, or stare at me through windows only to hide when I look over at them. I asked around about this, and it turns out that parents often warn their children that "the gringos will kidnap you if you don't behave." There have been news stories and rumors from Cancun of children being kidnapped and sold to the US as sex slaves.

So basically, I'm the boogie man. Way to go America.*

Some of the youngins did eventually realize that I probably wasn't going to kidnap them, and after that they were a lot of fun. One little girl at Mr. Canul's corner store wasn't sure what to make of me, so she would alternately stare while laughing hysterically at me and then run away. I turned the camera on after she did this like 5 times.

Since I couldn't really get her laugh on film, I tried again, but soon found it was more fun to film the other children around me. Listen closely and you can hear one of the Canul boys correcting my Mayan:


*Note: Using the word "America" to describe the United States is innapropriate when you're outside the US but inside either of the two continents that have that name. I use it here only for sarcasm's sake.

Lets Go Eat!

I was standing under the Central Pich Tree today, language exchanging with an ever growing book of mostly teenage boys. I would teach them something in English, and they would teach me something in Mayan.

They asked me how to say Ko'ox Jana' in English, and when I told them it roughly translates to "Let's go eat," they all burst inexplicably into cantankerous laughter. After about a minute of this, I was able to calm one of them down enough that he could explain to me what had gone wrong.

Turns out, the word "lets" is used in Mayan for "lick" and our word "eat" sounds suspiciously like the Mayan word for "Ass." Not exactly something you want to say to a bunch of teenagers!


Under the Shade of the Pich Tree

Turns out that towards the end of this clip, the rally said a prayer for the deceased relative whose spot this woman was running for. Which is the sort of thing that happens when you don't speak the language of the people you're working with.


* If I start with an introductory video, will you click on it?

Forget Spanish, I'm Learning Maya

My time in Santa Maria Poniente has become a sort of Mayan language immersion program. Surrounded all day by people for whom "Mexico" is a distant land in the North, its impossible not to become imersed.

It helps a little that, as one Mr. Canul put it, "we don't speak the Maya right." As I'm listening, I hear little pings of Spanish: place names, machinery parts, curse words, every number except three. It makes listening to conversations an amusing experience. At one point, the only phrase I understood for 5 minutes was "A hueevo," a kind of negative, resigned "Duh." The first friday before coming to the Ejido, I attended a two hour Maya class where I learned a fun children's game called Tim bom ba and also how to transcribe Mayan pronounciation into writing. Although being beaten by two preteen girls was certainly entertaining, the second part of the class has been very useful. Now when I hear a new word, I can "see" the pronouciation.

And let me tell you, pronounciation matters. The difference between the word for wilderness ("k'a'ax") and chicken ("kaax") is a click and a properly rolled double a. Maya has several clicks and pops, which are are written by adding an apostrophe to the consonant to be clicked. K is a regular k sound, while k' is a shortened, clicky k, a sound I normally reserve for imitations of people getting choked.

There's also a lot of double vowels, which are kind of difficult to describe but involve distinctly pronouncing the vowel twice without stopping. These come in two types- the normal type just described and another one in which the first vowel has an accent to increase its emphasis.

The last thing to note is that "x" is pronounced like the sound we know as "sh." And with that I now present to you my entire current Mayan vocabulary*:

Ko'ox - Lets go (you and me)
Koonex - Lets all go
Tin bin - I'm going
Nai, Na - Home, house
Jana - Food, to eat
Tun bin - You're going, you go (not a command)
Ja' - Water, rain, lake, river, ocean, any kind of water.
Ik' - Wind, air
Ma'ao' - Ok, good, used kind of like the street slang "word"
Tux ka bin - Where are you going?
Che' - Tree
Bix a K'a'aba' - What is your name?
K'a'ax - forest, jungle, wilderness, any land thats not a farm or a town
Kaax - chicken
Bax, Bix - What
In K'a'aba' e' Andon - My name is Andon
Mulix - Curly haired (not sure if this is Maya or Spanish, but I certainly heard it a lot)
Choko - Hot (temperature)
Kiin - Sun, day
Chu'upa' - Young woman, girl
Tsis - Sex (Its hard not to learn curse words ok?)

With these few words and phrases I can form simple sentences like "Choko Kin" (the sun is hot, its a hot day) or "Ko'ox Jana" (lets go eat). I even had my first (extremely short) conversation with a man passing by on his bike:

Andon: Tux ka bin (Where are you going? Where do you go?)
Man: Tin bin nai (I'm going to my house.)
Andon: Ma'alo' (Word.)


*Note that the words here are written the way they sound to me, using the simple rules I describe above. There is still debate as to the official spellings of many words.

Board Produccion with a Chainsaw Frame

The task i've been given, to keep track, to the minute, of all the steps taken to turn a log into boards, gives me a unique ability to describe that process. The first step is arguably the most ingenious. In order to get a straight cut, a ladder is placed on the log and affixed to it with a brace and a few nails.

The slabbing frame* is set to cut off the round part of the log, and then the chainsaw goes to work. Held perfectly level by the ladder, the slabbing frame, and a bit of downward pressure from its operators, the chainsaw is pushed straight through the log lenghtwise.

Once the first cut is made and the log has a flat surface on top, successive slabs can be cut using just the frame. The frame is adjusted to make 1 inch, 1 1/2 inch, or 2 inch thick slabs, depending on the curvature of the board.** To allow for sanding and polishing, an extra 1/8th of an inch is added to the thicknesses above.

The Slabs are stockpiled, and once enough of them have built up, the process of removing the edges and making them into boards begins. The board is measured and marked using a string dipped in a paint made from the innards of a "D" battery. Once the outline of the board is visible, a specially sharpened chainsaw is used to - carefully - cut a straight edge off of each side of the slab to make a board. When compared to a traditional saw mill, this whole process is incredibly labor intensive. The Germans may think that's inefficient, but it reminds me of something Curtis Buchanan (an artisan chairmaker from Tennessee) told me a few months back:
"The more labor intensive it is, the more there is for me, and the less I have to give away."
Its the same with the Ejidos - the more work they do themselves, the more value they add to their raw material, the more money stays in the community.


* Also known as an Alaskan Mill, the slabbing frame is essentially a frame attached to a chainsaw to turn it into a mill capable of making a straight cut.
** I find it incredibly annoying that these people are forced to work in inches and feet. Am I alone?
*** As an extra super bonus, check out this little video I put together. Its essentially this blog post in video form... and in Spanish:

Burning Hellscape

On my first night in Santa Maria Poniente, I saw an eerie glow in the distance and headed over to investigate.


Value Added

I've ben sent back to Santa Maria Poniente by the folks at OEPF to document their new board produccion system. Up until now, they've only ben able to sell logs to the saw mill, which makes the income they recieve per tree rather minimal. To address this isue, a couple of the head honchos from OEPF went over to Honduras to check out a machine that MaderaVerde uses to make boards at the site of the cut tree in the woods.

Its basically just a frame that goes over a chainsaw, but its simplicity hides its potential. By eliminating the need to drag whole logs out of the woods with big machines, the "micro sawmill" could save a whole lot of land from disturbance and soil compaction, and do so while increasing the money that stays in the community.

The head honchos brought the machine back, and John Curtis has been training people on how to use it. Since John is in Washington right now (probably talking to even bigger head honchos) one of his students, Hector, is doing the training today. Watching this 19 year old kid teach 40 year old men how to increase the value of their wood was an incredible experience - the kid is good.

He also represents a step forward in John's stated goal of making himself unnecessary: John taught him, in Spanish, how to work the micro sawmill, and now Hector is teaching others, in Mayan, how to do the same.


The House

Just a tour of the place I'm staying at in Felipe Carrillo Puerto and some pictures from around town:

The courtyard of the UNORCA complex, which includes the ejido union I'm working with and several other related organizations

A sweet political mural from the town center. The flag the guy is carrying says: "The Zona Maya is not an ethnographic museum, it is a people marching forward."


Aserradero de Chunhuhub

On the way back from the woods tour in Santa Maria, we headed over to Chunhuhub to see where much of the wood from the ejidos ends up. You might want to turn down the volume on this one:

Afterwards, Alfredo asked me what I thought of the place, and I wasn't sure whether to talk about the brilliant eficiency of the place or the fact that this was a brilliantly eficient way to destroy forests. Turns out, he was thinking along equally negative lines:

"Yeah, its good that these people have work, but only one person is really
winning here."

I have a tendency for social issue blindnes, so that really woke me up.


*Note: Alfredo is the one in the blue shirt with the ghost hand.

Santa Maria Poniente

I made my first visit to an ejido today, and I ended up driving since the two europeans* in the back wanted to talk to each other and alfredo is just learning to drive. After a long ride filled with speed bumps which I never seem to notice until its too late, we arrived at the ejido Santa Maria Poniente, the fifth such comunity on the road.

We drove through the town rather quickly, but I had time to wonder at the beautiful homes of stick walls and palm roofs (palizada y huano), and at the massive tree that graced the town center. We were pretty late, so we picked up the two guys who were waiting on the roots of the tree and headed into the woods.

The road into the logging site was rocky and tough to handle in our lit
tle truck, a little bit hideous, as Umberto says in the video below:

Once we got to the first bajadilla, or log landing, the Gueritos sprung into action, asking questions (which no one understood) about the types of wood and how it was extracted. They've been having a lot of trouble communicating, since they spoke little to no Spanish when they arrived, and Spanish is a second language to the Mayans in many of the ejidos.

We pushed on until we found the loggers, a small team made up of a chainsawer, his helper, and a
"Trifarmer" machine to go after and pull out the logs. I got a little clip of the Trifarmer in action:

We ran across several chicozapote trees, easily recognizaple by the hatch marks from Chicle extraction. Even though chicle isn't selling at a great price, the product is so ingrained in Mayan culture that its often the only tree which is not cut down when the ejidatarios make "Milpa," their word for slash and burn farms. The season for tapping chicle starts in September, so I'm going to miss it unfortunately, but it seems like its not going to be hard to find people who are involved in the activity, since that category includes every male ever.

I kept talking to umberto and asked him about the way in which money and work is distributed in the ejido:

On the way back, Umberto told me about the differece between their local variety of corn and the hybrid stuff we eat: their corn is for eating, ours is for selling. Mayans store corn in a little structure in the Milpa, and apparently the Hybrid corn doesn't keep very long in those conditions. When I asked him where their variety had come from, he told me it came from "los antiguos," the third such reference of the day. It feels pretty epic since in English, "los antiguos" legitimately translates to "the ancients."**

*Note: At first the folks at OEPF were calling these two carpertry technology students from Austria and Germany "Gringos," but since I showed up and they're not from the US they are now being called "Gueritos."

**Was that a stargate reference? Yes, yes it was.