In a remote swamp in central Cuba, men chop wood and build large pyres that smolder for days as they watch.
These are the charcoal burners of Cienaga de Zapata, reviving an old tradition of making charcoal – not in industrial ovens, but in open fires.
“It’s a little harsh, but I like it,” said Daniel Diaz, 59, his face and clothes black with soot.
He is one of a few dozen men taking part 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.
Diaz lives with his family in a wooden house next to a river in Cienaga de Zapata National Park, in the Caribbean’s largest wetland. He is one of the few members of the project to have worked in charcoal production before – with a 33-year career behind him.
His house is only a few yards from the coal fires. Behind him stands a tall wooden pyramid, soon covered with straw and earth for the combustion process which takes five or six days to produce charcoal.
Diaz will be keeping an eye on the “day and night” process to ensure that the thick smoke does not turn into fire.
While he is working, his nine-year-old daughter plays in the nearby river.
Charcoal is made, traditionally and in modern times, by heating wood in an oxygen-poor environment.
With some 80,000 tonnes sent abroad each year, mostly to Europe, charcoal is one of the largest exports from sanctions-hit Cuba, although almost all is now produced domestically. industrial scale.
In Cuba, the traditional “carboneros” of Cienaga de Zapata are famous: it was with them that 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 otherwise known for its crocodiles.
Over the years, however, the traditional method of making charcoal has been largely abandoned.
– They came to get –
Now the government is trying to bring him back.
“They were lacking in experienced people. So they came and got me,” said Orlando Prado, 73, who retired until he joined the project when he started last year.
In a large shed by the river, old machinery is being restored to produce the wooden tools used to collect and transport the charcoal produced.
Workers clean canals dug by the Spaniards at the beginning of the 20th century and which have become blocked over time, that is to say about thirty kilometers of streams winding through the forest.
Others patch up old “bongos” – long wooden boats used to transport charcoal and the wood used to produce it.
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 commodities.
For now, production from the Cienaga de Zapata project is modest: around 600 tonnes in the first year, with a target of 700 tonnes this year.
“The aim of our company is to continue producing charcoal by seeking an ecological balance between nature and man,” said Yoel Salgado, director of forestry at the Cienaga de Zapata conservation agency, Ecocienzap, who manages the charcoal project.
It lists different trees planted to replenish the forest and produce more charcoal: cedar, mahogany, acacia and other endangered species.
“Coal is an emblematic product of this region,” added Salgado’s colleague Oscar Verdeal Carrasco, who hopes that the return of the old trade to the region will one day become a tourist attraction.