The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge

Hauling firewoodDuring our travels in western Mexico and Central America we’ve become aware of how costly electricity is in Latin America.  Many times our rent is the base price with the extra cost for the electricity added on by the week or month.  Kitchens usually have cooktop stoves (ovens are rare) fueled by propane which is cheaper and no hot water line plumbed in.  And several times, in budget accommodations, our showers have been cold to tepid also. This, we’ve been told, is the typical arrangement for most local dwellings.hauling firewood

It wasn’t until we were in the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico, on our way to San Cristobal de Las Casas, that we first became aware of the people who gathered wood. This they gleaned as a fuel source primarily for home consumption uses such as cooking and heating. This basic commodity might be bound for the gatherer’s home or it might be for sale on the streets but it was the fuel choice of the lower echelon of society.Hauling wood

This type of labor takes place at the micro level of the economy, akin to the subsistence farmers of the campo – the country side – who tend small plots of land on the slopes of the hills or by the margins of the roads. It takes place off the grid and the harvesting is done in the thick forest or jungle. More often you see men, each with a machete dangling from their hand, and women or children, walking on the sides of the roads with their loads. Or you see the vendors in the small towns, in the markets, on the streets or hawking wood door-to-door.a log and a machete

Gathering wood is ubiquitous; it went on almost everywhere if one was watching for it. We saw it in the mountains of Chiapas and throughout the Petén rain forests of both Mexico and Guatemala.  We saw it on the beaches in El Salvador, in the western highlands of Guatemala, the coastal regions of Honduras and in the northern hills of Nicaragua.

hauling woodHauling firewoodAnd we saw it in the city of Granada as well as on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Often the men and boys were seen with the large loads suspended from the tumplines around their heads or peddling bicycles with staggering loads strapped on front or rear. Or women trudging along the roads with armloads of wood or even trunk sections balanced on their heads or shoulders; they carried driftwood along the beaches and back towards the small homes away from the tourist areas.tumplin

Wood gathering is demanding and dangerous work as we came to learn.  While housesitting in Antigua, Guatemala for three months we enjoyed using the fireplace on chilly nights and Alejandro, a young man, supplied our wood.  One morning we asked about his “bandaged” hand which was wrapped in a cloth soiled by the work of wood gathering. He was missing the last joint of the ring finger due to a machete accident which had happened several weeks previously and was still in the healing process.  A few months later we met Herman, now a middle-aged, panga boat captain from Utila, Honduras who told us of collecting buttonwood beginning at the age of six with his family. He would rise with his father and brothers well before dawn to row from their home on one small island to another spending the day chopping and gathering wood. Since the red sap of the buttonwood would destroy the few clothes they owned father and sons worked in their briefs or naked. Once the wood was gathered and bundled into uniform sized sticks of one-hundred pieces, they’d paddle to a third island to sell the wood and then paddle home to rest for another day.hauling wood

In the lands where electricity is expensive and poverty is a reality, the necessity for firewood as a fuel will undoubtedly continue. Breathing in the smoke in homes not properly ventilated causes a lot of respiratory illnesses, especially in the young.  However, it is the reality of those living in poverty and on the edge to rely upon this natural commodity and it will fall to those within that class to provide the labor which provides this necessity.bundle

 

By Richard and Anita

32 comments

  • Such a beautifully written and photographed post. I think part of the travel experience is seeing how the rest of the world lives. It gives us all more compassion for others. As the world becomes smaller and smaller and we learn more about other cultures, I hope people around the globe will become more emphatic.

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  • This is what travel is all about, learning how other people live and having empathy.

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    • This piece became integrated with our travels as the story unfolded before us as we moved south throughout Central America. We were fortunate to be able to grab snatches of their daily lives which gave us an insight into this aspect of their world.We agree that awareness is one of the true values of extended travel. Richard

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  • Thank you for reminding me of everything I take for granted. Every one of these photos made my body ache. Knowing it and seeing it are truly two different things!

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    • Agreed, we like many who have access to the comforts of the industrial world do take much for granted. I sincerely doubt that we would have the endurance to labor daily as these people must to meet the demands of their daily lives. The glimpses into their lives was merely that, a quick snapshot on their reality, but one we had no knowledge of here-to-fore. Richard

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  • What an enlightening post with beautiful pictures. It will make me more cognizant of these workers when I travel~

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  • I will think of your photos and experiences the next time II flip on a switch for light. Thanks

    Maida

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    • So good to hear from you Maida. We’ve become a lot more aware of our energy usage after living in Mexico and Central America, especially of lights, fans and our very limited use of air conditioning. Did you recognize the location of the man hauling wood on his bike? That was taken in front of Education Plus Nicaragua where so many of the children’s meals were cooked over a wood fire. Anita and Richard

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  • What an interesting post. It’s intriguing and sobering to be made aware of micro-businesses going on around the world like this one and yes, makes me happy to have electricity at the touch of a switch. We’ve also lived in developing countries were black outs or brown outs were the norm and we were prepared for them with candles and lanterns, but in Australia, a power cut is an emergency situation! This was a thoughtful and well written post – thank you, it made me think.

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  • A beautiful post (love all your images) on the one hand highlighting the ‘romance’ (read ‘hard-bloody-work’) of collecting wood for a life of self sufficiency, while on the other firing up the debate of how we humans care for ourselves – feeding and warming ourselves – while also caring for our precious environment.

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    • It is indeed a complex issue. There is no doubt that it is a demanding life, providing for the basics of life through sheer manual labor. I believe we found little allure in their life of enforced self sufficiency. You are correct, though, that it raises a whole range of issues about food and energy production/consumption that are currently facing us. And in the balance hangs our precious environment. Richard

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  • Sometimes although I don’t envy these folks and the backbreaking work of wood-gathering it does spark just a hint of yearning for a back-to-basics sort of life. If the power goes off for more than an hour where we live (in the electricity-abundant Pacific Northwest) you would think the end of the world had arrived. I suspect there are many in the younger generation tucked away in urban comforts that might not know how to gather wood or light a fire for that matter. I was amazed in Hawaii to hear grown-ups ask the type of bird that ‘crowed’ as they watched roosters walk the hotel grounds. . .

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    • That is a whole aspect of the equation that had not crossed our minds. You are undoubtedly correct that there are many who are totally divorced by nature but by chance, not by choice; born into a life of urban sprawl. Perhaps akin to the folks unmindful of the rooster’s boasts. And then there are those whose existence is predicated upon their ability to adapt to survive within this closer context with the environment such as the woodgatherers. Of course, there are those who span, in some fashion, the extremes and can contemplate a more simple life and try to do our small parts to live more modestly. Richard

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  • An interesting tale. I guess trees have a hard time growing with all the timber gathering going on. 😦

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  • Very interesting story, When we lived on St. Croix electricity was incredibly expensive and we learned not to take it for granted.

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  • You wonder how long the earth can sustain this, almost as much as you wonder how long the families can who rely on the wood for the necessities of life…

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  • Wow, I loved reading about these observations, it is harsh reality…I also understand electricity being expensive we live on an island that imports all its gasoline that powers our electricity so it is very expensive in Hawaii

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    • You are absolutely spot on with both points. It is a harsh reality for those involved in this labor as a means of acquiring one of the basic necessities of life; heat and/or cooking fuel. And electricity is expensive especially in the more remote areas, such as Hawaii, or the more underdeveloped nations of the world; hence the need for the wood gatherers. A rather nasty conundrum. Richard

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  • Very interesting and thoughtful post. Not that long ago, we heated our home in Minnesota with wood. We grew to dread the autumn if supplies ran low. It was tons of work year ’round: we scavenged for trees to cut, negotiated with landowners as necessary, hauled, split, stacked and carried. Most of the drudgery with wood consists of moving it around, as you describe. Our tasks were made easier with truck, trailer, chainsaws and rented splitters (all of which required gasoline). Waiting on aged wood (it needed about a year to dry) when you’re running low is nerve-wracking, too. While many people romance the independent nature of going off the grid, living it can be another story. Good perspective, thanks.

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    • I tip my hat to you. We’ve had friends and family who have used wood as the sole or main heating source and we’ve seen the drudgery involved in the process. And we’ve participated in chopping, splittng and stacking on vacations with friends and on jaunts to cabins, etc. But we’ve never been required to devote the continuous energy required by this way of life.Thanks for taking the time to share your unique perspective. Richard

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  • I have seen scenes like this – especially in Tanzania – and that makes me fear for the forests as well. What a tough way to make a living – and you do wonder how long it can last. Turning on the oven, flushing a toilet, reading by light in the evening – all things we never think about. Good to get these visual wake-up calls – and start the creative process of how you fix the problem in the long term.

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  • There are still a few families around mostly on the outskirts of town and further into the campo that use wood. I was quite surprised the first time that I went to a house in town and saw the lady of the house still cooking outside with concrete blocks and a wood fire. Luckily we live where the water is usually quite warm when it comes from the tap and we never need to heat the house.

    The state subsidizes electricity in Panama but I can still see it being pricey for people who only earn $2.50 an hour. It’s very frustrating sometimes to see transplanted North Americans complain about certain things when I look around and see how some of my vecinos live.

    Great post, thank you!

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    • Thank you, it was our pleasure. The practice is far more wide spread than we would have imagined. But it is a reality for many. We are, indeed, the fortunate ones who have access to the economic resources to opt for electricity or gas. When I hear expats complain unnecessarily it miffs me that they miss the opportunity to see below the surface of their own immediate needs and desires. Richard

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  • We have to keep reminding ourselves how lucky we are! We are wealthy enough to complain about the cost of electricity and should be happy that we have the option (and the electronics and appliances) that require it.

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  • There are so many things we take for granted! Thank you for this insightful post.

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