I can no longer look at barbecue the same way. It is entirely possible that I’ve eaten barbecue that was cooked over charcoal that was made from a tree that was growing in my farm before it was my farm. And now that I’m trying to replace that tree and all the other trees that used to grow there, I realize that what took a minute to cut down will take a lifetime to replace.
The men we hired to work on the farm remember a time when the farm was covered in big trees instead of the pastures, small stands of trees and weedy sections that are there now. They also remember going there and cutting down the big trees to make into charcoal. They even remember specific trees. There was one huge one that was sold and turned into bakya or wooden slippers. But most of it went to making charcoal. It’s easy to make charcoal, all you need is a tree! I can imagine the men going into the woods, cutting down a tree, turning it into charcoal, placing it in sacks, and selling the charcoal in the market or using it at home for cooking. They made the charcoal right at our farm in the two ulingan areas, blackened patches of earth where the production went on. According to our caretaker all kinds of trees were made into charcoal, from big mango trees to spindly madre de cacao. There was no discrimination.
And now we’re trying to bring the forest back. A friend told me that tree planting is just 1% of reforestation. He was not exaggerating. A lot of work has to be done before you reach that photo-op moment with the seedling being placed lovingly into the ground. And then even more work has to be done afterwards to keep the seedling alive. About 2-3 years of weeding and watering, according to Dr. Miyawaki. I love a good chicken barbecue with java rice, but it hardly seems worth the effort required to replace a forest.
It’s good to know that there are alternatives to charcoal made from forest trees. In Perak, Malaysia they make charcoal from sustainably managed mangrove forests. They found a way to make charcoal from water-logged mangrove wood, control the amounts harvested, and replant in the harvested areas. Other sources of sustainable charcoal are wood wastes such as sawdust, coconut husk, well-managed timberlands, and tree farms. Or you could just skip charcoal altogether and use gas or electricity.
At first I thought the hardest part of this reforestation project would be finding the proper native seedlings. Then, I thought that the weed clearing would be the biggest job. It turns out that I grossly underestimated the time it takes to dig holes for the saplings! We are trying to do this tree planting properly with big, roomy planting holes for our saplings. The soil in first area we chose for our project is packed and hard to dig. We are going at the amazing rate of at 2-3 holes per person per day. The good thing is that when we cleared up the weeds from the area, we found several species of native trees already growing there. They were hidden by the weeds and madre de cacao!
I used to wonder why the reforestation projects I’ve heard of are done by big corporations like Yokohama or by communities and clubs with a lot of corporate sponsors. Now I know. It takes a LOT of time, effort, and expense just to get a tree in the ground and even more work to keep it alive. It takes many hands and deep pockets to do tree planting on a large scale. So kudos to those companies that support tree planting, especially in watershed areas and national forests.
I see a lot of digging in my future. Or maybe the soil in the other parts of the farm is softer and the digging will get done quicker than I thought. Either way, I’m just thankful that I started this reforestation project now and not any later. I hope that in 20 or so years I’m still around, enjoying my mini forest!