May, 2009: I arrived in Belize City, a place of contradictions: crime and decadence, sunshine and pelicans. I had been fortunate, as the originator of the project, to have support from The Toledo Institute of Development and Environment, TIDE. From the city, I took a small plane south to Punta Gorda on the border of Guatemala, courtesy of Tropic Air. We flew over the Maya Mountains and vast areas of deforested land – a legacy, presumably, of the Victorian era, when English ships were sent to plunder the forest for timber for masts, and devastated the indigenous stock of mahogany trees.
Having spent the night as the guest of the director of TIDE, Celia Mahung, I was taken next morning, by a small boat, through a labyrinth of mangrove, to a tiny island in the middle of the marine reserve in The Gulf of Honduras. This is the Ranger Station, an outpost positioned to detect and discourage illegal fishing and to perform the necessary duties of monitoring the marine biodiversity within the reserve. My guides and companions were three of the rangers, Marlon, Carlos and Paul, all of whom spoke with wonderful Creole accents, and so comfortable in their purpose and surroundings. Carlos was born and brought up on an adjacent island, having lived what must have been an almost self-sufficient life with his many brothers and sisters. He told me that each morning they would canoe several miles across the gulf to the mainland and then walk several more along the beach to their school. Over the next few days, I learned that Carlos is extremely proficient at making fresh tortillas. I also discovered that he was once a fisherman from “the dark side”, meaning he was involved in the illegal fishing that he is now trying to stop.
The rangers’ launch took me to many of the surrounding islands where I looked for driftwood,. We often went to the Snake Islands, so named because they are inhabited by boa constrictors, though all I saw were enormous hermit crabs the size of footballs. Carlos would climb the coconut trees in his bare feet and throw down enough shells to quench everybody’s thirst. My eventual hoard was a wonderful collection of sun-bleached tropical hardwoods and mangrove, a fine example of what is indigenous to that part of the world.
Initially, my choice of Belize was almost a matter of sticking a pin in the map. In the end, though, TIDE’s interest and commitment to my project was a deciding factor – that and the knowledge that another supporter, The WaterForest Group from British Columbia, had recently secured a concession to retrieve all the tropical hardwood that had sunk to the bottom of the rivers in Belize during the British logging programmes in the 1800s. The purpose of the WaterForest project was to harvest thousands of logs in perfect condition without actually cutting down any forests – a wonderful idea to resource what was, in effect, a detritus from the time of the British Empire.
It was largely due to support from The WaterForest group, and the fact that British Columbia’s coastline was brimming with driftwood, that I decided the next stop on my journey would be West Canada.
I arrived in Vancouver at the end of September, 2009,.
Early on the morning after my arrival, I took a spectacular flight by sea-plane to Vancouver Island, and met up with members of the Sierra Club BC, who were also keen to support my project, though my involvement here consisted mainly of giving a class at the local high school, and interviewing some of the key figures from the charity. The coastline was spectacular and laden with such a tonnage of driftwood that it seemed part of the landscape. It was interesting to learn from a local conservationist that the driftwood is an important aspect of the coastal and marine ecosystems, providing a crucial habitat for a variety of insects and animals.
My friend John Garth had come to join me, and we headed off in a rented van to Uclulet, the West coast area of the island . From there we travelled several miles down one of the many logging roads and set up camp in one of the remotest parts of the island. It’s a wild place – brown bears on land, killer whales in the sea; our most welcome encounter, however, was with the local salmon! Just along the coast we stumbled upon a First Nations reservation, which is where, on the beach, we met Tim. Tim had lived on the reservation near Uculet all his life, as had his ancestors. He caught fresh wild salmon from the sea, which he prepared for us in the style of First Nations – filleted, and then placed over an open fire with cedar sticks. The smell of the cedar driftwood as it burned is still strong in my memory. The salmon, I soon realized, is hugely significant in First Nations culture: not only as an important food source, but also as a symbol of freedom.
Further south we met the famous First Nations artist, Arthur Vickers, a man whose passion for his culture is matched by an instinctive artistic integrity. This was observable in his latest piece of work: a desk made from old-growth cedar which Arthur had donated to the Canadian premier. It was a truly amazing work of art, which, he said, had grown from letting the wood “explain” to him how the grains should be matched, and how the piece should “speak”. This deep sympathy with his material was apparent in his response to my suggestion that he make a carving on one of the pieces of wood I had collected – a piece that would eventually be used for one of the chairs I intended to make. Arthur explained that from his point of view, all the trees along all of the continents are connected to each other through their root systems; that they all “speak” to one another and know all about the deforestation that is happening thousands of miles away. They even know about the driftwood.
On returning to London, I made efforts to engage WWF in my project. Initially, it seemed as if this would prove impossible. I was getting nowhere until – more by chance than persistence – I interrupted a conference call and pleaded to be allowed to see someone. It worked. WWF Coastal East Africa Programme offered support, and before long I was on my way to Tanzania.
I arrived in the bustling city of Dar es Salaam at the end of October 2009, and yet another tiny aircraft took me and the WWF CEA team leader, David Hoyle, off to the small island of Mafia. From there we were able to hire a Dhow and visit an even smaller island, Juani, to look for driftwood. Our helmsman, Nassoro, was a local man with good knowledge of the island; we also had with us a translator, Mohammed. We motored into a small opening in the Mangroves, and all of a sudden were in a village that can’t have changed much in hundreds of years: at least, that was how it first appeared to me. The buildings were in effect mud huts, and the village economy –like the staple diet – depended on fish. However, a few Manchester United shirts did provide evidence of a wider and less innocent world beyond.
The east coast of the island was uninhabited, and could only be reached after a long walk through the sweltering heat yet, twice a day, the women of the village would make this journey to gather the squid and shellfish that could be picked at low-tide. Some of them also have the responsibility of turtle-monitoring for WWF, helping to protect the eggs, especially during hatching.
It seems, though, that life is not what it used to be. There’s no longer an abundance of fish, so local people have to turn to other ways of earning a living. An initiative set up by WWF involves manufacturing oyster beds to produce artificial pearls. These are sent to local craftspeople, who then make them into jewellery. Another source of income is, of course, tourism, though this is not without its drawbacks. Reef expert David Obura told me that reef systems worldwide are under severe threat. It seems that the best way to preserve what there is left is to make the reefs a pleasant place for divers to come and experience the amazing rich biodiversity of marine life.
Most of the south end of Mafia Island is now established as a marine reserve which, in every respect, has been implemented by the WWF Coastal East Africa programme. Along with a handful of sponsors, they have put in a communications system that enables many local fishermen to sell their catch on the mainland more effectively.
On my return to England, David Hoyle made contact with WWF Malaysia, to ask if they might be interested in hosting me for the last leg of the driftwood collecting. This would strengthen the case for WWF becoming a major player in the project – particularly since COP-10 was looming.
THE CORAL TRIANGLE
The enthusiasm and commitment from WWF Malaysia was huge. At the beginning of March 2010, I travelled to the Northern tip of Borneo and undertook a journey of just over 24 hours to reach the small fishing village of Kudat. There was a lot of interest in this trip, with a team from Malaysian TV, a journalist from The New Straight Times and many members of the WWF team tagging along. I was especially pleased to discover that two of the local men who helped me collect the driftwood have been inspired by my project, and now intend to make and sell their own furniture.
We went by boat to some spectacular islands full of monkeys and strange, exotic birds. At one point, we landed on a small island and were immediately invited by a family for lunch, which consisted of six large plates of crabs that they had just caught. They were fantastic although, ironically, one of the issues that WWF face is the age old problem of over-fishing, which is having a devastating effect on the marine biodiversity in that part of the Coral Triangle. Most of the fishing boats go out at night and shine massive lights to attract the fish towards their nets. Some headway is being made with local communities, but judging by the huge catches coming into Kudat, there is a long way to go.
I do hope that all this support and belief in my project will continue – that WWF will make use of the table and chairs to showcase their initiatives, and draw attention to the plight of the world’s oceans at COP-10 and beyond.