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.