The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge
During 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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
By Richard and Anita