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Business and Finance

Rescuing Panama’s sunken rainforests

Gracie Lofthouse
Lumberjack Alana Husby is searching the waters of Panama for high quality, ethically sourced wood

“I call it dragon wood,’ says Alana Husby, founder of Coast Eco Timber, offering up a photograph of stripy, golden brown timber.

The wood in question comes from the bottom of a flooded forest in Panama – and anything could have happened to it to give it its distinct texture. It might have been struck by lightning, succumbed to insects or ‘spalting’, a type of colouration formed by fungi much sought after by woodworkers. Alana calls it “fancy rot.”

“But we kept finding these logs. It turns out it’s a species,’ she says, citing its technical name Amarillo Guayaquil. “I had no idea it was there. I couldn’t believe it because it’s gorgeous.”

Built in 1976 to supply water power to a hydroelectric plant, Panama’s Bayano Lake contains a submerged hardwood forest in its watery depths. Coast Eco Timber send divers down with chainsaws to free the trees and provide high quality, ethically sourced wood, rescuing a host of fascinating species – such as Alana’s beloved dragon wood.

Family tree

A fifth generation logger, Alana was brought up in an indigenous community on British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii archipelago and went on to study forestry at the school of technology. Classes were held in the field from 8am to 6pm, often in the pouring rain – yet in spite of the conditions and Alana’s poor navigation skills, she gained an in-depth, technical knowledge of the industry. “I learnt everything from road building, harvesting methods, tree planting – every single facet of the business.”

She went on to work for her father’s company, rescuing wood from Canada’s river debris and old buildings. On hearing about the dense, untouched forest at the bottom of the Panama reservoir, she decided she had to see it. She ended up buying out the existing logging company and setting up her own in 2011.

Wood mafias

Half of Alana’s 110 logging and saw mill staff are from the local Kuna Madugandi tribe, and being ethically and environmentally conscious is at the heart of her company’s ethos. Rescuing sunken wood avoids cutting down standing forests, but what’s more, with Alana’s wood, “you know where it comes from.” Last year, Greenpeace highlighted the issue of illegally sourced timber entering European markets by way of controversial Brazilian exporters. “Wood mafias” are reportedly operating in central America driven by an intense demand for exotic woods in Asia. Cocobolo, an exotic wood that’s popular in China, was causing swathes of the forest surrounding Bayano Lake to be illegally cut down last year. Asian merchants were thought to be contracting indigenous people from nearby communities to carry out the logging.

“People were getting killed over this Chinese wood’, Alana says. “It was crazy and I was like, guys, this trend is not going to last long. I’ll give you a job. I hire them. We create jobs 12 months a year.”

But as ethical as it is, the mission is still to create a profit. “Being green can actually save money. As a business, that’s really important,” Alana says. It sets a precedent for other companies: “It’s a roadmap to show others that it’s possible.”

While Coast Eco Timber employs an underwater logging technique that’s been around for a long time, Alana puts down the failure of her competitors to an inability to think creatively about the challenges. “They’re dinosaurs. Say there are 15 species in the lake: they think, ‘Oh the world only knows about four of these, so that’s all we’re going to sell.’ But for economies of scale you’ve got to get in and get all the wood out,” she says. “We’ve found markets for almost all our woods.”

Special powers

“Every single tree has special powers. Some of them are great for inside application; some of them have the burn rate of concrete so they’re great for outside; some of them sparkle so they’re good for veneer.” Because it’s old growth, the timber is especially wide: picture a hardwood table in your dining room measuring three or four feet in diameter. These qualities have made it popular with the luxury hospitality industry, although a more consumer-friendly range of floorboards are launching later this year.

As well as their individual intricacies – Alana has worked with The Smithsonian, who’ve helped to identify some of the rescued species amongst her crop – the wood seems to have developed certain properties from being underwater for so long. “Our wood dries faster than fresh cut jungle wood,’ she says. “They’ve proven it’s acoustically better.”

Alana Husby is a member of the Libertine100; read her profile here. Coastecotimber.com@Ecolumberjill

They’re dinosaurs. Say there are 15 species in the lake: they think, ‘Oh the world only knows about four of these, so that’s all we’re going to sell'

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