Aka my saga of trying not to buy illegally-logged timber.
Since May of last year, when we started the serious planting and realized we were going to need some semblance of a roof to protect fertilizers, tools, motorbikes, and ourselves, Carlos has been waiting for me to get my act together to build a real work shelter. He’s patiently strung up one plastic tarp after another and watched as they degrade to tatters within a few months under the rotating pummel of UV rays, banshee rainstorms, and wind whipping through the Barrigones valley.
that tarp’s not keeping much water out
But it sure does look evocative
Education of a gringa: my original infrastructure plans for the finca back in 2016 involved putting in three elegant little platforms on which I envisioned doing yoga, setting up a picnic, pitching a tent, sipping gin and tonics while the sunlight faded. But while I have done no yoga on this hobby farm yet, I have planted over 3000 trees and acquired two horses. Thus, many dollars and hours and deliberations later, I now have a level internal road, a horse corral, a fenced pasture, a covered work space, and 0 leisure platforms. It’s been a massive, frustrating arc of a learning curve – just as I hoped.
The work started last spring when we decided that the old entrance road was too steep and shitty to allow my beloved but low-riding RAV4, or really most vehicles, to comfortably pass. So I hired a guy with a backhoe. This was exciting if slightly upsetting, watching heavy machinery churn through my beautiful red dirt. The guy gouged an unnecessarily deep gash in the hard clay-pan drainage and tried to convince Carlos to conspire in overcharging me. From that exercise I learned that men who are paid by the hour to operate heavy machinery should be closely supervised, preferably by someone who actually knows something about things.
The backhoe built up a broad, firm dirt landing near the mango tree and internal teak fenceline, just where my road begins to drop off steeply (the sentonazo section). This landing, out of sight of the public road and with lovely views down into the valley side of the finca, immediately became the work station and parking area. (Elements other than roofs I also hadn’t considered in the original planning: staging areas, parking, turning around.) It turned out to be the strategic sweet-spot and is where Carlos and I have ended up spending the vast majority of functional time. From this I have learned why you should get to know the contours of a place through daily use and seasonal change before you design, plan, build, or plant too much.
it’s a good stop off before heading down the hill.
Almost as soon as we put up the first makeshift tarp shelter – champa – on this landing, last May, I began trying to figure out how to build something more permanent. How difficult could it be?
The first iteration of the “champa” as we still call it, just after the bulldozer created the landing
Dear reader, you know what comes next when someone formulates a sentence like that…. Nothing but trouble.
For starters, I want to use local timber, not the imported Chilean pine lumber that dominates hardware store shelves across Costa Rica. But I want legal local timber! And that, my friends, I have learned, is not so easy to find in Osa.
A warehouse for one of CR’s biggest lumber distributors (this is the kind of place I visit for my day job sometimes). It’s almost all Chilean, some U.S. Southern pine. While this stuff is “legal” in the strict sense, it’s not contributing to Tico forest management and its shipping is an unaccounted greenhouse gas emission. Not what I wanted in the finca.
Sure, your wood may come with a formal invoice from the sawmill that makes it “legal”. For people who genuinely don’t know or people who don’t care, that’s fine. For suckers like me whose professional reputation was made explaining ad nauseum how “timber laundering” works around the world, an invoice on its own means nothing if everyone from Carlos to the Adminstrator of the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve is constantly telling me stories about clandestine logging operations. When even I see trees being cut down without permits all the time, and hear trucks heavy with logs chugging down from the upper reaches of San Miguel at night to avoid patrols.
When it comes to wood, it becomes clear, the Peninsula exists in a deep state of cognitive dissonance. There is a ton of construction. And much of the construction is done by hotels, by retirees, by vacation-home builders, all drawn by the rainforest and supportive of its conservation. These people want their beautiful rainforest timbers: the red glow of cristobal, the rock-solid heft of chiricano, the durability of manú, the sinuous crenellations of cara de tigre. There are at least three sawmills within 15 minutes of my house, all processing natural forest woods.
But where does their raw material come from? MINAE grants exceptionally few permits for any natural forest logging in Osa – for many years now, even the vast majority of fallen trees are technically illegal to saw up and sell. This corner of Costa Rica has been exceptionally protective in its conservation ethos since a series of scandals around logging back in the 1990s. So….
Almost everyone here works with illegal wood. It’s an open secret. The legal supply is light years away from the demand. Now, we can have robust debates about exactly how damaging this highly selective illegal extraction of large hardwoods really is, or why a farmer shouldn’t just automatically be allowed to sell lumber from a valuable tree that the wind knocked over. But the fact is: if you’re trying to stand on principal, you can’t trust the origin of any timber you didn’t see standing up first.
Last year (2017) I got excited for a hot moment when I learned that natural forest management is returning to Osa, slowly but surely. For three years now, a project between the Osa Loggers’ Association (Asociación de Madereros de Osa (AMAOSA)) and one of Costa Rica’s public universities, the TEC, has been slogging through the studies and bureaucracy involved in obtaining approval for several Forest Management Plans on private forestlands. AMAOSA has also been helping its members obtain proper permits for Fallen Tree extraction. I got their species list, I swallowed hard at the prices – as you’d imagine, turns out it costs more to do things right! – but I was ready to buy.
Then of course it turned out that the Association didn’t actually have permits yet for the species I wanted. [Watch this space: AMAOSA has a small stock of fallen wood timber already, and I’m told that by January 2019 they’ll actually have legal wood from management plans to offer us.]
Back to the drawing board. At this point, I looked around the finca and thought, well hell, I’ll just use my OWN trees then. I have at least 700 meters of fenceline that Freddy Gordo planted with teak trees years ago, harvested and left to coppice (regrow from stump). While most of them are a little too small still, I figured I could squeeze enough timber out to build a simple shelter or two, leaving the rest of the trees to thicken up for when I’m ready to build the retirement house (!).
This arced tree will never be worth much. better to cull it now and get a bit of timber, let something better grow in its place.
We thinned out about 20 trees from ~70 in the fenceline.
But if I’m going to cut trees on the finca to build on the finca, it makes little sense to pay a bunch of money to transport them miles away to a sawmill for processing into dimensional lumber, only to bring that lumber back up the hill. Better to just hire a guy with a portable sawmill, right?
Finding a guy with a portable sawmill didn’t take too long – Fernando was referred to me by the coordinator of AMAOSA. We first spoke in October 2017. But between rains and holidays and my travel and his lack of much interest in my (admittedly tiny) job, he finally showed up on 9 March. This visit was just to cut down the selected trees – obviously, the prelude to milling them. Timing was particularly tricky since we had to time the cutting for the luna menguante, that is, the few days on the waning side of a full moon, because it is a religious belief among Latin American forest users (including the professional ones I am paid to supervise in my day job) that if you cut at any other time of the month the resulting timber will be eaten by insects or rot twice as quickly. (Respectable Western-science citations for this point available HERE or HERE.)
Fernando showed up in a prehistoric Land Rover that had no brakes, with two sidekicks. One sidekick was a skinny dude in sweatpants who was deemed the chainsawyer but didn’t really know what he was doing. The other guy had a nice beer gut and no apparent function. As usual, Carlos was the most competent person in the room and ended up cutting most of the trees down. Then Don Fernando & Co got back in the Land Rover and coasted downhill…never to return.
Anyone ever heard of safety gear around here?
Don Fernando, I tried to hire you! I really did.
Sidekick trying to push tree down?
After another month or two of attempts to get him back up the hill, I took the hint and found a new portable sawmiller (recommended via my horse broker, because rural economies). In the interceding time, Carlos had hired a son-in-law and his tractor for a day to pull the 18-odd logs we’d cut along the fenceline to one central landing where the mill could be installed. The art of portable sawmills, José my new miller explained, is getting them set up perfectly level, otherwise your boards end up crooked. His machine had been built by a man in Perez Zeledón, it looked ancient but it did the job.
My log landing
José brings in the portable mill
It was an extremely informal scene – would a little safety equipment really kill you to wear? – but hypnotic to watch during the two or three days he was in the finca.
My lovely little tree on the mill
The balance: Key tool of trade
Measuring logs before milling
producing a 2″x 4″
And now I learned the importance of knowing the dimensions of the lumber you need before milling. At this point I had already been speaking with builders (another saga!), but to be clear: I was starting from zero here. I have never in my life designed even a simple wooden structure. I was still trying to remember the difference between a viga, a varilla, a regla, a tabla, a basa, etc – beams, boards, bases, honestly I still don’t know what all these pieces are called in English. So: Do I want 2x4s or 1x4s or 2x3s? How many? Um…“Yes”?
i just know it’s real purty!
I have no doubt they will tell stories about the gringa with her teak for a while to come.
Poor José. Most of the trees we’d cut were barely of a size to yield the respectable Tico minimum of 4 varas in length. (The vara, uselessly enough, is an ancient Iberian Peninsula unit measuring 83.5905 centimeters.) Especially when we had to sacrifice the first vara on most logs for safety reasons: these trees were planted along the fenceline, and Fredy had let the growing trees swallow up barbed wire and fence staples – dangerous for the saw and anyone near it (remember tree spiking? Same principle). I basically told José to cut as many thick 2×4” pieces as he could, then square off 1×4” boards, then make half-inch slices of the remaining sides to give rustic two-face pieces.
What you DON’T want to allow when you plant valuable timber species in the fenceline
The hole and knot surrounding fence wire
I lost tons of good timber to this problem
After milling, we counted and measured and settled up. Here in Costa Rica wood is sold by Pulgada Maderera Tica, the Tico logging inch, which is one of those maddening idiosyncrasies you just have to accept: in a country that otherwise functions entirely in metric, the basic timber industry unit combines two different antiquated European measurement systems: a PMT is 1 inch by 1 inch by 4 varas. Whatever. José charged me 160 colones/PMT and I paid him for 590 PMT, a whopping total of c/94,400: that’s US$167 for a pile of homegrown, artisanally milled teak lumber. He even gave me a formal invoice so that I could legally transport some of the wood off-farm for future shelving and handicrafts.
“cubicando”… measuring how much lumber they milled
The rustic 2-faced boards drying
In a hardware store around here, teak goes for 900 colones/PMT, so I figure I saved myself at least $500, taking into account various labor costs. And got free courses in tree felling, portable sawmills and dimensional lumber. Great deal!
Pretty happy with myself
drying the teak a bit before building
Look, the waste pile is already sprouting wood for my future deck
Except… when I finally pinned down a builder (after bailing on my first option and being left hanging by my second option), I learned that 590 PMT isn’t nearly enough to build both a work platform and the horse corral which had become necessary in the time between my starting this infrastructure project and now. And also that teak – at least this kind of untreated, young teak – isn’t, actually, all that durable for the wet and termite-ridden Osa. There are only three types of wood that builders here really want to use for bases, ie the part of a structure that’s in/on the ground: manú negro (Minquartia guianensis), cirri (Caryodaphnopsis burgeri), or níspero chicle (Manilkara chicle). Everything else will, according to gospel, simply rot away in a few years. But try obtaining legally harvested manu negro, cirri, or níspero. See above. It’s almost all informally logged and laundered through the mills.
I talked it through with Adrian the builder (after making him sign a ludicrously detailed contract to ensure he would take me and my little job more seriously than previous men with heavy machinery). We could have gone for cement or metal bases, but that seemed way more carbon intensive. In the end I did two things. First, we dug up the most robust of the old manu fence posts that Fredy had put in around the finca – many of them were still solid enough to use as bases. Then, I bought from Carlos three thick old cirri posts that had held up a building on his now dismantled gold-panning tourism project. These were almost certainly logged originally without permits, years ago, but of all the lines I was trying to decide whether to draw, this seemed the least problematic. Adrian cut the posts into 1.5 meter sections, long enough to be safely off the ground, then spliced suitable teak posts on top.
They don’t look like much but after a decade or more in the ground, these posts are still strong AF
Carlos’s cirrí posts. became the best option as my own goalposts moved.
Adrian trying to fit the job to the wood
My spliced, “mostly legal” posts
Adrian tried to maximize the lumber from the portable milling, but I didn’t really have enough pieces of the right dimensions to cobble together good roofs. He convinced me to use bamboo, an option that both saved me from another round of wood-origin angst and allowed him to show off some new building skills. I’m stoked about the results. Bamboo is a pretty insanely amazing material in so many ways: strength, weight, durability, workability, and time from planting to harvest.
In the end, though, we needed a few more strong, durable pieces to use for the corral walls. And I admit that after months of trying to be the only person in Osa to build even a fucking horse corral with thoroughly legal timber, I caved. I bought some wood from a neighbor, I allowed myself to believe that the tree had fallen of its own accord, and I decided that he was going to use it and/or sell it to someone else anyways. I said: at least I can trace it back to source. It’s one tree. I know it’s not some local timber mafia, it’s my neighbor who needs to build some new fences.
Justifications? They are. But honestly, by this point, I found myself more bothered by the hypocrisy and counter-productiveness of government policy around here than by my neighbor’s action. The Forest Reserve is, in theory, about finding a balance between preservation and human usage. Maybe hotels don’t need fancy hardwood trim on every balcony, but farmers and ranchers and communities need wood for their livelihoods and homes. Policies that make it almost impossible to harvest even occasional trees at extremely low densities in the midst of a rural economy like Osa are obviously going to create illicit activity. And like marijuana, you can’t regulate something you simply don’t allow. Cue pointless game of cat-and-mouse between rangers and low-level logging peons.
We need to establish a more honest framework of rules and oversight that keeps high-demand hardwoods from being targeted and endangered, but also makes it possible for people to benefit from active forest management. (To be clear: there are excellent officials in MINAE aware of this and trying to do things differently. They just aren’t really in charge.)
So I’m not going to feel guilty about my posts. I learned too much reality in getting to the point of buying them.
Then I went off to the US for three weeks, leaving Carlos to oversee the construction process and Karen to play both good and bad cop. Team effort! Nice work everyone. Now we have a real work platform! A real corral! They are both thoroughly imperfect but wonderful in the way that only something you yourself fumbled through from inception to completion can be.
The lovely tool/food shed, made from my rustic boards
The manga, or slot for containing an animal to give shots, load on trucks, etc
The only caption for this is: FINALLY!
The manga, or slot for containing an animal to give shots, load on trucks, etc
The lovely tool/food shed, made from my rustic boards