In a remote swamp in central Cuba, men cut wood and build large pyres that smolder for days while they watch.
They are the charcoal makers of Ciénaga de Zapata, reviving an ancient tradition of making charcoal, not in industrial furnaces, but in open-air fires.
“It’s a bit difficult, but I like it,” said Daniel Diaz, 59, his face and clothes blackened by soot.
He is one of a few dozen men participating in a government sponsored job creation program to bring traditional charcoal making back to an area where it used to be a way of life.
Díaz lives with his family in a wooden house next to a river in the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park in the largest wetland in the Caribbean. He is one of the few in the project who has worked in coal production before, with a 33-year career behind him.
His house is just a few feet from the coal fires. Behind it is a tall wooden pyramid, which will soon be covered with straw and earth for the combustion process, which takes five or six days to produce charcoal.
Díaz will monitor the process “day and night” to make sure the thick smoke does not turn into fire. While she works, her nine-year-old daughter plays in the nearby river.
Charcoal is made, traditionally and in modern times, by heating firewood in a low-oxygen environment.
With around 80,000 tons shipped abroad each year, mainly to Europe, charcoal is one of Cuba’s largest exports punished with sanctions, although now almost everything is produced on an industrial scale.
In Cuba, the traditional chickadees Ciénaga de Zapata are famous: with them Fidel Castro spent his first Christmas after the 1959 revolution. Photographs from the time show the revolutionary leader surrounded by charcoal burners and their families in the region also known for its crocodiles.
Clockwise from top left: Daniel Idalgo, 27; Juan Fabian, 63; Leonel Escalona, 57; Miguel Orosco, 59
However, over the years, the traditional way of making charcoal had been largely abandoned. Now the government is trying to get it back.
“They had a shortage of experienced people. So they came looking for me, ”said Orlando Prado, 73, who had retired but joined the project when it started last year.
In a large hangar on the riverbank, old machines are being restored to produce the wooden tools used to collect and transport the coal produced.
Workers have been clearing canals dug by the Spanish in the early 1900s that have become blocked over time: some 30 km (20 miles) of waterways that wind through the forest.
Others are mending old “bongos,” long wooden boats used to transport charcoal and the wood used to produce it.
The boats are propelled with long poles pushed along the riverbed, a way to save fuel in a country experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years and a severe shortage of basic products.
For now, production from the Ciénaga de Zapata project is modest: about 600 tons in its first year, with a target of 700 tons this year.
“The objective of our company is to continue producing charcoal seeking an ecological balance between nature and human beings,” said Yoel Salgado, director of forestry at the Ciénaga de Zapata conservation agency, Ecocienzap, which leads the charcoal project.
List the different trees that are being planted to replenish the forest and produce more charcoal: cedar, mahogany, acacia, and other threatened species.
“Coal is an emblematic product of this region,” said Salgado’s colleague, Oscar Verdeal Carrasco, who hopes that the return of the old trade to the area will become a tourist attraction.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism