Alana Husby with local Kuna indigenous women.
Alana with workers from the local Kuna community in front of a vast pile of salvaged logs.
Alana Husby at home.
A diver prepares to cut logs deep under water.
Logging the lake.
Timber! Instead of crashing down, the cut log surges to the surface buoyed up by air sacs.
Alana Husby among some finished wood products made with lake-salvaged timber.
Logging the flooded forests of Panama: Alana Husby
9th January 2015
Alana Husby has sawdust in her blood. A fifth generation log and lumber person from Canada, she was ‘flipping wood' as a teenager, and now she's in Panama running the region's biggest underwater logging company, employing local Kuna Indians to fish tree trunks out of flooded forests. Kate Monson met Alana in Oxford while negotiating a 'green' timber deal ...
I don't have the lady balls to get into land logging. That's a dangerous job in Latin America. For now, the 10,000 flooded forests scattered across the continent should keep me busy enough!
"My wedding didn't last, but three really neat things happened that day", beams Alana.
"My best friend met her husband, who she married this year. My father, who has now passed away, got to walk me down the aisle. And I heard about Panama, which changed the whole course of my life."
This was in 2009. But in truth, on hearing Alana's story, you realise the seeds for Coast Eco Timber were sown long before her discovery of Panama's flooded forests.
"I was brought up in an indigenous village on the Haidi Gwaii - what used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands. It's an archipelago as far north-west as you can go in Canada and my sister and I were two of only a few white kids in a community of around 900.
"I knew the story of the Eagle and the Raven before I knew about Jesus Christ. My first boyfriend was indigenous. Everything was indigenous. I didn't even go to Church. I studied Haida. That was our culture."
With logging in the family and sawdust in her blood, it's no surprise that Alana was drawn to forestry too. But for her, the obsession was always with what was left behind.
A mission to rescue lost logs
"I just started flipping all the waste in my father's warehouse. Eventually I started rescuing wood from river debris traps and old buildings. Little old ladies would call me up; 'Alana, Alana, this tree is going down. It's been in my family for 100 years. Can you come rescue it?'
"There were also the Beachcombers. Guys that live on these big rafts in the middle of nowhere with a couple of dogs. In British Columbia we float all our logs for transport and then sometimes you'll get these ferocious storms and the logs will get broken up and these Beachcombers gather them up. They're like the scavengers of the ocean. I'd buy their logs too and flip them, seeing what I had.
"I just love the story of wood like this. I look at each piece and they all have their own specific trait. They all have a tale to tell. They're special."
So when on her wedding day an old employee told Alana about the dense tropical forest drowned a hundred years to create the Panama Canal, it's easy to see why she was (almost) willing to sacrifice her honeymoon to take a look.
"I eventually got down there to Lake Gatun and discovered this little local company bringing up the trees and just focusing on the domestic market. I got really excited, so I started purchasing wood from them to do research and development in Canada to see what was there.
"I made every product you can imagine. Decking, guitars, pens, bowls, anything, just to see what we could do. And I realised we were really onto something. So I bought 65% of that company and eventually 100%. Everyone thought I'd overpaid but I knew it was such a great opportunity that I didn't care."
And then the wood ran out ...
"The concession of lake I had at that time was running out when I got involved, but I just assumed I would get another one. I didn't. And things got a bit desperate. I had 60 men working for me at that time and we just got everything out that we could. It was crazy."
But the time came when the lake's timber was almost all gone ... and then what? It wan't just her business at stake, but the livelihoods of an entire community.
"And then through some miracle, just as things were about to end, a man named Armando came to me. He works with the Kuna de Madungandí, an indigenous community on the banks of Lake Bayano in Panama.
"They'd heard that I'd grown up in a First Nation village in the middle of nowhere and that I was fair to work with, so together we started the process of getting a Lake Bayano concession and that's where we are now.
"There are 14 'comarca' or villages right around Bayano. They're beautiful. And the Kuna who live there are my partners in this new concession. This lake was flooded in 1976 to create water for a hydroelectric dam and had never been logged. It's just pure timber and we've got 15,000 hectares.
"The actual logging process is amazing. We've built these flat boats out of recycled industrial propane tanks. In the rainy season the water is 80 feet deep - 50 feet in the summer - and once we've localised the tree the guys dive down.
"It's pitch black at the bottom but they feel their way around, hook up floats to the base of the trunk and then pump them full of air. Once the floats have got hold of the tree the men fell it under water. When it's free it just pops right out"
'Being green and responsible is just a natural part of the process'
But it's not just the peculiar logging process that makes Alana's company different. It's her deep commitment to environmental and social justice. This is something Kevin McCloud of C4's Grand Designs has noticed too, listing Alana and Coast Eco Timber as one of his 'Green Heroes' for 2015.
"For me, being green and responsible is just a natural part of the process. It's like a three part deal. Make money, take care of the community and be green. Everybody should be that way. It can be cheaper of course, but it can also make things more expensive.
"For example, take the toilets for my guys at the site. Portaloos would have cost $300 a month to hire. I was like, no way, we're using sawdust and making them compostable. Or the propane tanks. I traded them for wood rather than build some fancy barge.
"But then sometimes it works the other way too of course. We use vegetable oil to lubricate the chainsaws instead of traditional oil and that costs more. But you've got to walk the walk.
"There's also the methane. Sometimes you see bubbles of it coming up from the lake. One of the reasons I was given the concession was to get the wood out and cut emissions. On a short time scale methane is 100s of times worse than CO2. Locking it into tables and flooring, for example, has a huge impact."
It's not always easy - but I do my best
One source of frustration is her inability to gain full certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as proof of her company's environmental credentials - because, paradoxically, her logging operation does not take place in forests.
"It's crazy because, despite this, we can only be listed as FSC Controlled wood. There are so few underwater logging companies in the world that they just don't know what to do with us. That's something that has to change. You can log a living forest and be FSC pure, yet we're doing one of the most ecologically driven ways of logging there is and the best we can get is 'FSC Controlled'.
"I do battle it in my heart sometimes though. On the one hand hydro power is a green source of energy but it really depends on how you do it. They're flooding these environments and displacing people. And yet the wood's there now, so I'm trying to do the best I can."
And doing the best she can is no small matter. But does Alana see herself as able to push for change in a male-oriented and notoriously aggressive industry?
"As far as being out there, I don't think I'm built for it. But I absolutely want to lead by example. The work I do with the indigenous community is really new for Panama I think.
"In North America where I grew up, the First Nation communities are scrambling to record the elders' knowledge and keep their culture alive, whereas the Kuna are all bilingual. They speak Kuna and they speak Spanish. They're remarkable. It's like time stands still there. But they're at that precipice and I want to help make sure staying in the Kuna community is a viable option."
Shooting for the stars
"With my Do Good Wood Foundation I've tried to support the community a lot. Buying laptops, soccer balls and building a community centre. But my dream is to build a school. There's a drop-out rate of 70% by grade nine with the Kuna because they have to bus over an hour to get there and then they're kind of like fish out of water.
"I'm in the process of setting up a line of Do Good Wood flooring products where we're actually giving a percentage of every sale sold to the fund. Instead of how it is at the moment, which is kind of in dribs and drabs.
"I want to be the Tom's Shoes of wood! As far as I know there is no one doing this at the moment, so if I can start with that and be really awesome at it, I think others will follow."
And hopefully they will. But if not, perhaps it doesn't matter as Alana is thinking big. "I don't have the lady balls to get into land logging. That's a dangerous job in Latin America. For now, the 10,000 flooded forests scattered across the continent should keep me busy enough!
"My dad always said shoot for the stars. I will be the biggest underwater logging company in the world, and I want to be one of the biggest timber companies in the world. But only if I'm balancing that out with our philanthropy because it's just not fun otherwise."
Kate Monson (@ponderingkate) is a freelance writer and studying an MSc in Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden.
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