They asked me to tell you this: wood-burning factory

7 02 2009

To be honest, I didn’t realize how involved with my cause I would become when I was planning this ride. I thought I might travel, do some interviews, raise some money for charity, maybe even have a big impact in Paraguay. But I didn’t expect to become so concerned about other environmental issues throughout Latin America. This tour might just turn out to be more important than I ever realized. Now people often treat me like an authority and beg me to post their environmental and social issues on my website so that you can know about them. And for good reason! Here’s one example:

When I was riding Route 16 last Friday I was constantly getting passed by trucks headed west, loaded with logs. They were red logs, big and beautiful. On the way, I asked some folks if it was legal to chop said logs. They said yes, it was perfectly legal, but it shouldn’t be. One man drew a picture for me, a circle the size of a standard sheet of paper. “If that’s the forest before…” Then he drew another circle the size of a penny inside the bigger circle. “That’s how much is left now.” Quebracho, they he said the tree was called. (And the wood is called Quebracho too. I’m glad the dead tree product has the same name as the live tree. It’s not like beef. I heard a new study revealed some children don’t know meat comes from animals. Certainly, if beef were called cow there would be less confusion.) Because I was continuing west, I would see a number of trucks loaded with dead Quebracho trees on my route.

In the early afternoon I decided to ride 5 kilometers off the main route to a small town of about 5,000 people, called La Escondida, or “The Hidden.” When I finally arrived in La Escondida the first thing I noticed was the tall factory, billowing smoke, but I didn’t ask about it yet. I socialized a bit, found a place to stay, set up camp, then asked my host brother to lead me to the local radio station so I could set up an interview. Outside the radio station was a mural painted by local youth. Tree stumps everywhere, smoke in the air, and a factory in the background.

Of course, I asked about it. The factory was clearly the factory I saw at the edge of this small town. But what about the tree stumps? It is a wood burning factory. If I just go look around that corner, I’ll see mountains of logs.

Many of the residents are not sure what the factory produces. A powder is made there, they all agree. But some told me it is a powder for juice, exported to the United States. Others told me it is a powder used for treating leather, exported to Italy. One thing is clear, nobody in La Escondida uses the powder, whatever it is.

The rest of the day I spent talking to people about the factory. Nobody wants it there. In fact, the residents are quite upset about the factory’s existence. One señor told me, “I wish you could stay longer to see the disaster this factory causes. Sometimes it rains ash on us, on our homes. On those days you don’t want to go outside.”

I spent Friday night at the local social club (soccer fields, basketball courts, patio restaurant) with a group of new friends. Everybody in the club was socializing, sitting outside when two outsiders arrived, a man and a woman. They looked like models, they were dressed in fine clothing, and they got two personal pizzas to go. Pizza boxes in hand, they were getting ready to leave when they heard my accent. Where am I from? What am I doing here? Arizona, an environmental bicycle tour. What about them? They’re from Resistencia, the local big city. They came to work on a project at the factory. The factory gave the town this social club, they told me, isn’t that great? So that’s why the factory is here. Somebody made a deal.

Saturday morning, on may way out of La Escondida at sunrise, there was a train of trucks loaded with Quebracho logs waiting at the entrance of the factory. Once I made it back to the main route and continued west, I noticed all the trucks were headed in the opposite direction as the day before. Now that I had passed La Escondida, the logging trucks go east! Wow, all the trucks are headed for the factory…

—After posting this entry— Here’s my friend Angela’s two cents: “The story about the powder being sent to Italy is very likely true – Quebracho wood contains a high level of tannins, which are indeed used to cure leather. If they are making powder out of it, that’s probably why. In Paraguay quebracho is also cut down to make carbon… Not sure if that’s true in Argentina too, or if they just import their carbon and cut down their trees to feed more lucrative industries.” Important info, thanks Angela!