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.

La Laguna del Señor

Chalo and I went over to a beautiful lagoon in the ejido Señor today. The people of Señor started an ecotourism project where they cleaned up the lagoon, built trails, and erected an observation deck. They now charge 10 pesos per person to go to the lagoon, which is low enough that locals can afford it but still enough money to provide a steady revenue stream to the ejido.

We swam out in the water and I learned a few basic nature words in Mayan, like "Ja" which means water in almost any form, serving as the word for rain, lagoon, drinking water, etc. I'm so used to the often one-sided nature of cultural discussions outside the US (they know all about us from TV, but we don't know about them) that its really refreshing to meet some one who has heard very little about Gringoland.

As an example, here's a snippet of our conversation:

Chalo: "How do they make tortillas in the US?"
Andon: "They... they don't really use that many tortillas in the US. "
Chalo, with a concerned look on his face: "Then what do they eat??"
Andon: "They eat more bread..."
Chalo: "Do they get full??"
Andon, holding back a chucle: "Yeah, they get full."
Chalo: "We eat the bread sometimes, but it doesn't get us full. The
tortillas are better..."


*Image credits: Scince I forgot to bring my camera along for this trip, the beautiful pictures above were donated by Monica and Alfredo from OEPF.


During that same conversation with Ingeniera Victoria today, she gave me a sample of chicle (natural chewing gum) to try. Like honey, chicle is one of those products that you could produce forever with minimal effect on the forest. I've seen tall, strong, healthy chicozapote trees with more than 50 hatch marks on them from where they've been tapped. Not only that, but the tree is relatively common and regenerats on its own when the forest is cut.

Chicle has a really interesting history on the Yucatan Penninsula. Used since the time of the Ancient Mayans in its raw, unsweetened form, it stayed relatively unknown to the outside world until an American, who was actually trying to make a new kind of rubber, ended up with a huge shipment of chicle that he had no idea what to do with. Eventually he added sugar to the stuff, and modern chewing gum was born. The industry grew explosively, and brought a lot of money to the areas now known as Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatan.

Everything was going dandy until someone figured out how to make synthetic chewing gum, and since then the chicleros, who venture into the jungle for weeks at a time to tap chicle, have seen their numbers and their profits dwindle. Before coming to Carrillo, I had read about the efforts of the "Consortio Chiclero" (Chiclero Consorsium) to revitalize the industry by selling organic chewing gum in the UK. The Consorcio claims to represent the intrests of the chicleros, but Victoria thinks they're in it for the money* and has been battling with them to raise the prices they pay to the Chicleros.

One way to do that would be to find new, direct markets for chicle and sell a finished product rather than bricks of raw material. To that end, Victoria showed me a little prototype, with three balls of chicle individually wrapped like candies and presentedin a little basket (another sustainable forest product). I grabbed one and was about to pop it in my mouth, when Victoria stopped me and warned that this was nothing like regular chewing gum, that it wasn't sweetened, that it would be dry and flaky at first and that I should only bite a little bit, because it would expand.

Needless to say she was right on all counts. To my uninitiated taste buds, the stuff was terribly plain. No matter how sustainable a product is, it also has to taste good to be succesful. I grabbed the honey we had been looking at and mixed a capful with the chicle in my mouth. The two of them went great together, but the honey quickly dissapeared.

It gave me an idea, though. Earlier, Victoria had told me about another project to make honey carmels. Rather than try to mix the flavor into the chicle, a complex process that requires a bit of chemistry, why not just wrap a carmel in gum? It would be dry and flarvorless at first, but the carmel would give it flavor and last much longer than liquid honey.

We're gonna have to try it.


*This is just one person's opinion. I'm not sure as to the intentions of the group, but I still feel that without them there would perhaps be a lot fewer chicleros around... stay tuned as I dig deeper into the issue.

Keepers of the Honey

I sat down with Ing. Victoria today and went through each of the main projects that OEPF Zona Maya is working on, trying to figure out how I can help. Among these is their brand of Honey, Yumil Kaab, which translates roughly from Mayan to "Keepers of the Honey." Produced by several beekeepers spread out across the ejidos, the nectar that the bees collect comes mostly from the flowers of the forest. Because of its forest origin, the honey combines the consistency and color of maple syrup with a rich, honey deliciousness. They gave me a sample to take home, and I must confess I ate a couple of capfulls straight.

The really exciting part, besides the taste and the story behind it, is that the Zona Maya is one of the few places where a beekeeper can legitimately claim organic produccion. Because it is very difficult (read: impossible) to control the range from which your bees collect nectar to make honey, its very difficult to prove that your honey is truly organic. You have to prove that no one in the potential range of your bees is using pesticides, among other banned substances.

Each ejido in the Zona Maya has huge tracts of land (8,000 has; 15,000 has) and nobody in the ejidos uses pesticides or other chemicals, simply because they can't afford them. So although they're not certified yet, they could be once their honey sales make it worthwhile.

I'm thinking about importing a box of this stuff and seeing how it does in the US. What do you think?


*Images come from OEPFs website, linked to above.