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.