Friday morning on the lake: Ironildo Gomes da Silva and his three workmates chug across the water in a steel boat that has clearly seen better days. The boat stops beside one of the branches protruding from the water, and da Silva, 29, pulls on his goggles and jumps in. He vanishes briefly, surfaces again and signals to a workmate, who picks up a motor saw and throws it into the water, close enough for da Silva to grab it. The tree is securely attached to the boat with a steel cable before da Silva, an underwater lumberjack for the past ten years, dives to the lake bed.
In the early 1960s, the Brokopondo Reservoir in eastern Suriname was still a broad valley at the heart of the jungle through which the Suriname River flowed toward the Atlantic Ocean. Not any waterway, no, it was the most important waterway in the country, and so it was fitting that the country should share the river’s name. Located in the northeast of South America, between Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil, Suriname is the smallest country on the continent. The Suriname river is used to transport the country’s natural commodities – bauxite, timber and aluminum – in the direction of the capital, Paramaribo. There, by now brown and brackish, the river flows sluggishly into the ocean, past the Goslar, a freighter that was scuppered by its German crew in 1940 to prevent the Dutch colonial power from seizing it.
The ship still lies at the bottom of Paramaribo harbor today, a heap of rust in the Suriname River and a sign that things do not disappear, that they remain even when water engulfs them. And that’s how it is with the lake, which is actually not a lake at all, but an area of flooded jungle cut off by a dam.
At some point, the water level stopped rising, far later than expected, and the reservoir had ultimately become one of the largest reservoirs in South America and three times larger than Europe’s Lake Constance. A much smaller reservoir was the original plan, when they first dammed up the river in the jungle and started up a hydroelectric power station to supply a couple of aluminum plants with energy. Aluminum is one of Suriname’s most important exports, besides other natural resources, such as gold and oil.
Suriname is a former Dutch colony, which only gained independence in 1975. The descendants of slaves account for a good 35 percent of the population, while those of Indian and Indonesian contract workers who came into the country after slavery ended make up 40 percent. The rest are Europeans, indigenous people, Chinese and Arabs. Suriname’s good 500 000 inhabitants live chiefly on the coast, most of them in Paramaribo. Rainforest covers some 80 percent of the country. From the coastal strip, there are really only two ways into the country’s interior: You can either take a plane or a boat. Inroads are also being made into nature in Suriname, of course, and that includes the reservoir. But compared with the destruction caused by slash-and-burn cultivation and clearcutting in other South American countries, the jungle in Suriname is intact.
When the water came to Brokopondo, the forest and the villages in the valley were inundated. Ten thousand people lost their homes, and were resettled on the banks of the lake. And because the water moved in faster than expected, it also opened up fresh graves, the waters washing caskets out of the ground to float on the lake, and that could be the end of the story of the stronger destroys the weaker until nothing is left.
But that’s not the way it is. The trees at least remain, hundreds of thousands of them, their branches reaching out of the water to this day. So the story can go on because the wood brings money and work. The teams processing the timber from the lake are as mixed as the population of Suriname itself. There’s a Chinese manager in charge of a sawmill, an ethnic Indian steering a motor dugout across the lake. A man with Indonesian roots is standing by a band saw, where the descendants of the people who used to live here when the lake was still a valley are turning the logs into planks.
And there’s da Silva, the Brazilian underwater forestry worker. The timber in the sea has amazing qualities, he says. Even after around 50 years in the water, this tropical wood is still serviceable. Hardwood, top quality, naturally impregnated to withstand all manner of damage, it’s the ideal material for European terraces. Seven of the couple of hundred varieties of timber found here are interesting to the industry, including robust Guyana teak, walaba and the wood of the fava tree.
A German ships these treasures to Europe. Every six weeks or so, 42-year-old Marco Schulze travels to Suriname for Barth & Co., an import company headquartered in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He estimates that the lake still contains a good 14 million cubic meters of roundwood with a market value of approximately four billion euros. Schulze sends the timber all over Europe, but especially to his own country. The total value of all of the timber he procured from Suriname for Barth & Co. in 2015 amounted to some four million euros. That figure is set to rise, the company indicates.
Tropical wood’s reputation is not so good because it’s seen as being the product of over-exploitation, clearcutting, the destruction of nature. But there’s a great advantage to this wood from the reservoir: When it is felled, it leaves no gaps in the jungle, either from harvesting, as the forestry industry calls the felling of valuable individual specimens, or from the great swaths cut through the forest to make them accessible. Importer Schulze takes the argument one step further: If the trees were left in the lake, hardwood or no, they would eventually rot. Their decomposition, Schulze explains, releases methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that is at least as harmful as carbon dioxide. In other words, by building a terrace in our back yard with timber from the reservoir, we actually protect the climate twice over, he says.
Alternatively, it can be seen from a profit perspective: There are no restrictions on trade with timber from reservoirs. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), bans, or at least greatly restricts, the export of many varieties of tropical wood. However, its provisions do not apply to underwater timber.
That’s why da Silva keeps on diving there. He feels his way down the trunk to a depth of around 30 meters. As he moves down, he can tell whether the tree is worth logging, he says, because he can feel the differences. If he notices unnatural dents in the surface, or if the trunk does not grow continuously thicker on the way down, it’s a sign that the wood is rotten. He “sees” all of this with his hands; eyes can make out very little here. The water is cloudy, even if it is doesn’t look like it on the surface. And plus, the lake is inhabited, even if you wouldn’t think so at first glance. Dangle a piece of bloody meat into the water, though, and before long, there would be piranhas on the scene. Those hungry river dwellers were always here, and as the river grew wider, so, too, their habitat expanded.
Jungle is when life simply takes over – now there are piranhas and anacondas swimming through the forest
Now fish swim through the forest alongside anacondas and caiman alligators. Jungle is when life takes over, whatever niche it fills. Luckily for da Silva, piranhas don’t like the noise the logging team sends reverberating through the water. Nevertheless, they would soon overcome their aversion if the thing that must never happen ever did happen, namely that a worker was injured underwater. Not a scratch can the divers afford, and certainly no accidental clash with a chainsaw, that pneumatically driven tool driven by two hoses connected to a compressor on board the boat. One hose pumps oil into the saw to power the chain, and the other pumps the oil back up again. So it’s vital not to risk being injured underwater – or being knocked out by a tree. Saturated with water, the tree trunks weigh tons. Once sawn through, the wood does not rise to the surface. In fact, it would sink if it were not held fast by the steel cable. A winch is used to haul the logs to the surface.
These are the conditions in which the loggers labor, and while this kind of work may seem strange to some, for da Silva, the job he does is more than anything a good one, and one he enjoys because it makes him proud and brings in the equivalent of around 1500 dollars a month that he can send home to his family in Brazil.
Twenty trees felled; enough for one day. The workers’ boat pulls a pontoon along behind trailing the day’s harvest. We tie up at the houseboat. There’s a small island beside it in the reservoir, where the logs are stored, presorted, until at some point they are taken to the sawmill at the other end of the lake. Rifles are retrieved from the houseboat, the crew crosses to the mainland and heads into the jungle to shoot dinner. The leftovers will go to the piranhas.