Our 2015 journey
We have put our gear together. As you can see we are equipped to hit the dirt roads where a certain amount of “off road equipment” will be required.
We’re off: According to our SatNav, we will be driving for 3653 km to our first destination in Santa Barbara do Para. Although most of the road is paved, it is a single lane road that is heavily transited by trucks that will be difficult to overtake and we doubt we can do more that 75km/h. We will also only be able to travel by day to avoid the poor road conditions, numerous potholes and countless vehicles that travel without headlights. Therefore we expect to arrive in 4 days, on the evening of Sunday August 23.
One of our favourite stops, Hotel Rotamerica
On the evening of Sunday 23 August we arrive at our office near Belém (Northern Brazil). Our first job is to add three office-based days to plan the rest of the tour in detail. There are no roads to the next destinations. We could now use the Amazon River and go by boat approximately 700 km upstream. However, we would have to navigate upstream with the flow against us and that would be very tedious. Consequently, we decide to take a scheduled flight from Belém to Santarém.
Uwe and Alan shortly after landing in Santarém.
In the foreground you can see “Nossa Senhora da Conceição” church, built in 1661, and in the background you can see clearly how the Rio Tapajós flows into the Amazon. At the confluence of the two rivers, the green waters of the Rio Tapajós mix slowly with the brown Amazon River. The waters flow for about 6 km alongside each other before they mingle, since they have different flow rates and temperatures.
The area surrounding Santarém is rich in mineral resources such as bauxite and gold.
The inhabitants of Santarém make their living from cattle farming, fishing, the production of ceramic goods and cotton hammocks, hardwood, Para nuts, pepper, soybean, jute and rubber.
The port of Santarém is one of the main export ports for soy. There are discussions underway with a view to asphalting the main road from Cuiabá to Santarém, which would significantly reduce the transportation costs of soybean. Because of these asphalting plans, massive land speculation is taking place along the road, leading to the displacement of small farmers by soy producers. It is feared that this development may strengthen the dynamics of deforestation in the region.
The majority of sawmills in Santarém have been increasingly involved in scandals in recent years. We have therefore decided to only visit the companies with legal operations. In this photo you can see how safety regulations, such as the wearing of personal protective equipment, are taken seriously.
Likewise, attention is paid to exemplary waste separation.
This document indicates the geographic coordinates of a forest property. It also shows the areas in which legal forest operations (harvesting) may take place this year. We would like to take a closer look at this area.
As access to this area is very difficult, we opt for a private plane.
We’re off: The preparations for the launch have been completed.
One last look at the runway (gravel road) during take-off.
Meanwhile, we are above the Amazon Basin with its enormous dimensions.
The view opens up over the seemingly endless rainforest.
After a slightly bumpy flight, we land on a bush track far from civilization.
Safely down, with solid ground under our feet again.
On the back of a truck on the way to the sawmill.
Massaranduba logs from the current timber harvesting.
And here Ipê logs from which we also collected sample material for gene analysis.
Equally beautiful cylindrical Jatobá logs…
… and Muiracatiara, also known as Tigerwood.
Mighty Angelim Vermelho logs. For size comparison I am standing next to one of the logs.
No less voluminous Angelim Pedra logs, waiting for the band saw.
An Angelim Pedra log is cut at the bandsaw and the planks are transported for trimming.
All unusable portions of the logs are used at the factory’s thermal power plant to produce electricity. You can see the crusher that produces the chips, or biomass.
The wood chips are transported via a conveyor belt to the power plant.
Exterior and interior views of the power plant.
Augers transporting the chips into the combustion chamber.
Without the power generator nothing would run at the sawmill.
In the background you can see four drying chambers that are powered by the power plant.
High quality clean Angelim Vermelho lumber for the Dutch market can be seen in the outdoor area. The Dutch use this very durable hardwood as support in their numerous canals.
This timber intended for decking is initially planed to a uniform thickness. This achieves a cleaner and more uniform result. The board is then profiled to its final size, in this case the ‘French profile’.
Since this sawmill is located far from any populated area, lodgings have been built for employees to use from Mondays to Fridays.
The kitchen and dining area. Accommodation and three meals a day are provided for every employee free of charge.
The sawmill even has its own bakery and the bread they bake is delicious.
On the way to the dining room you walk past a tree trail. You can see Cumaru, Angelim Vermelho, Ipê and many other species.
Even pepper is grown here for seasoning the meals.
On the way back to Santarém. Once again, we experience the overwhelming grandeur of the Amazon rainforest basin below us.
From the air we can easily recognize the forces behind the destruction of the Amazon: once again we can see how rainforest is being burned down in order to clear land for cattle or to plant cash crops.
A little bit further down the road. However, we are not going to the locations shown here yet; they are all a long way south. Tomorrow morning we will take a boat and travel downstream on the Amazon.
Finally we have found a suitable boat for our 4-day trip on the Amazon. Now we must fill the fuel tank and wait until the wind drops a little. Then we will be ready to go.
A last glance at Santarém from the Rio Tapajós.
Sailing down the Amazon we frequently meet typical fishing boats like this one. Often the owners also live on them.
For quite a while we sail past houses on stilts, where families live a simple life. Some of them do not have any electricity and mostly live from fishing and raising cattle.
Now we have left the settlements far behind. As a result of today’s strong winds on the Amazon, which rocked our boat with one or even two metre high waves, we have decided to take a quieter parallel tributary river.
Yesterday’s boat ride lasted for 10 hours. Today we have come straight to a sawmill where they are about to unload logs from a barge. It has been raining for a long time although it is the dry season and the harvest has been significantly delayed. It has only recently been possible to ship the logs from the forest and therefore we haven’t been able to see much production activity. Nevertheless, we have formed a positive impression of this sawmill.
We are taking a few of these cashew fruits with us on our journey. The fruit tastes a bit like apple and the well-known cashew nuts are obtained from the lower part.
We continue on our boat to the next destination.
We take turns steering the boat every 2 hours. Now it’s my turn.
Thanks to the enormous width and depth of the Amazon, ocean-going vessels can travel all the way up to the Peruvian border. These supply the local communities with goods and also bring back raw materials that are distributed far and wide around the world. The last major port here is Manaus.
Steering for hours on the Amazon in the hot, humid air is tiring. Now it’s my turn to rest.
We sail along the shore most of the time because the water is calmer here and this way the boat does not rock as much – we don’t feel like being seasick. The view is beautiful and we enjoy looking at the multilayered canopy of the tropical rainforest.
In some parts along the river there are beautiful white sandy beaches. We would have liked to go swimming or to one of the bars but we’re on a tight schedule and there is no time for pleasure.
At noon we stop for lunch.
A view of a typical town centre in the region, with its colourful shops and bustling inhabitants. In this area, most people have no money to buy a car. In addition, there are no roads between towns or cities and therefore they mostly ride on mopeds and motorcycles. It is common to see people protect themselves from the scorching sun with parasols or umbrellas.
A truck bringing goods from the region to the port, where they will be loaded onto a barge.
After lunch, we take the opportunity to refuel our boat. The fuel tears a big hole in our travel budget. We refuelled 400 litres at R$ 3.96 (currently about 1 €) to R$ 1.584. With a consumption of 40-50 litres per hour that is just enough for up to 10 hours, or one day’s travelling. It soon mounts up.
On the Amazon the sun is particularly dangerous. The wind makes the temperature seem lower but as the water reflects the rays from the sun even locals can get badly sunburnt if they don’t take care of themselves. Women protect themselves with umbrellas or towels and men usually wear long-sleeved hooded jackets.
More white sandy beaches on the way to our destination.
Further down the river, away from the last settlements, the shore is again covered by tropical rainforest.
From time to time you can see Asian water buffaloes on the river banks. Unlike other cattle, they thrive in these flooded wetland areas.
The day is coming to an end and we enjoy the beautiful sunset over the Amazon.
We spend the night in a small, family run hotel. From this square you have a beautiful view of the well preserved church from the colonial period.
From the hotel room, we have a magnificent view of the equally impressive Xingu River. Not far from here it flows into the Amazon.
From the Rio Xingu we return to the Amazon via a small tributary to start the next stage of our journey. On the way we meet a school boat. Since there are no roads here the schoolchildren are not picked up by a school bus but by a school boat. They use a jetty to reach the school building.
Sometimes regular boats are used to bring the kids to school. The colourful school buildings here are simple wooden houses with no windows: there are only shutters, through which the wind blows. Everything flows with a certain ease here. The impression is that people live a satisfied, happy and definitely less stressful life.
On this branch of the Amazon the water flows slowly, and water lilies and other aquatic plants flourish here. We frequently encounter water buffaloes and also some bos indicus cattle grazing in the water.
Around noon we depart to our next destination. Here, however, we form a distinctly unfavourable impression of the local sawmills and so decide to continue our journey quickly.
The vastness of the Amazon. We have already been navigating on it for three days.
We come across a big barge full of logs.
Today is our fourth day on the Amazon. We are heading to our last sawmill for this trip. It is accessible only by boat.
This sawmill works with legally sourced timber and produces high quality products. In addition, the packs and bundles are neatly arranged for export, as you can see. The Ipê has been air-dried well to 16-20% moisture content and is of excellent planing quality.
In order to achieve such fine planing, this sawmill first pre-planes the planks, giving equal thickness. After that they carry out the final planing to the required profile.
The quality of both the wood and the planing is excellent in this Massaranduba decking.
All the logs here are marked in order to be able to trace their exact origin.
An Ipê log on the band saw.
In this sawmill the sawdust and shavings are collected properly and sold as fuel to the tile industry nearby, rather than letting them just blow away into the environment as happens at other sawmills.
Time to go back to Belem.
On 7 September nothing happens in Brazil, as it is Independence Day and time to celebrate.
Today one of our Dutch customers is here and we are visiting a FSC certified sawmill in Belém together. This photo shows the harvested Itaúba logs being compared with the trunk list from the harvesting area.
We get a glimpse of the production on the band saw.
In the afternoon we drive to a sawmill where we buy a good quantity of Angelim Vermelho timber for hydraulic construction. Together with our customer, we check the goods to be delivered.
On the screen we see the quantity of logs on his AUTEF (forest harvesting licence). The logs are displayed with botanical names, trade names, number of trunks, average amount per hectare and the total amount in m³.
On Friday afternoon we visit the local shipping company representative in Belém that will take care of shipping our containers. We finish the day at the Estação das Docas.
On the way back to our hotel we are stuck in the daily traffic chaos of Belém.
Today is Saturday and we are continuing our tour with a visit to a “Projeto de Manejo Florestal” (Forest Management Project) where they are currently harvesting timber. The first thing we do is to compare the geographical coordinates with the information on the documents.
Once we have determined that the coordinates match, we go into the forest project.
We go on foot looking for a tree that has been marked for harvesting on the document.
We have found the tree. The tree marked 527 in area 2-1 corresponds with the forest map on which the location was marked.
We again compare the geographical coordinates of the site with the information on the forestry map.
We take a sample of leaves from an Angelim Vermelho tree at the site corresponding to the coordinates on the Garmin GPS screen. We will send it to Hamburg, to the Thünen Institute for forest genetic analysis. The DNA analysis will serve as a reference on the database. Samples from the wood products harvested later in this area will also be collected and sent for DNA analysis. If the DNA from the sample leaves matches the DNA from the sample products, we will know that the wood comes from precisely this project and is therefore of legal origin.
We check the accommodation facilities for the forest workers during the harvest, so as to monitor whether this project complies with labour regulations.
A sanitary facility where the employees can wash both themselves and their clothes.
The water tower where fresh water is pumped. The water is used for cooking and washing.
This crystal clear river is nearby, and water is taken from here to supply the employees.
On our way back to the sawmill we drive over this hazardous bridge, typical of these remote areas. The following morning we set out on the next stage of our trip.
We travel by ferry across larger rivers, such as the Rio Xingu, along the Transamazônica to Belo Monte.
As we are still on schedule, we make a detour to a nearby cocoa plantation. We see the ripe cocoa pods on the trees and the drying of the cocoa beans on a drying rack in the sun. After drying, the beans are packed in bags and shipped to the chocolate producing countries around the world.
The Transamazonica from Medicilândia to Itaituba is a dirt road. Somewhere on the road -presumably on one of the numerous wooden bridges – we get a flat tyre. We go to a “24 hour tyre service”, where a nail is pulled out of the tyre and a rubber repair compound put in the hole and vulcanized. I find this a bit unusual – but it works! The repair costs R$ 10, – (about € 2.30).
A concrete bridge across the river. It would most likely not meet safety regulations in Europe due to the lack of side railings. Safety is a luxury here!
On our way towards Uruará we drive for about 35 km past an indigenous peoples reserve (“Terra Protegida”).
Simply gorgeous views of the dense rainforest. We have crossed many rivers along the way.
Around noon we reach a sawmill with an active exporting business. As you can see, they manage a very orderly log yard.
We have already seen many Itaúba logs. The ones from this region give a very positive impression. There are many big, straight and cylindrical logs.
The sawmill is old but tidy and clean; the equipment is also maintained regularly.
In this sawmill as well, they collect the sawdust properly in order to recycle it to produce thermal energy.
Originally this sawmill had open access, but now a stable fence made of durable Angelim Vermelho has been erected to prevent illegal entry.
The gatehouse has been built using cut-outs from Ipê decking. An ecological and economic recovery of pieces that due to their lower quality cannot be exported. The overall image leaves us with a positive – and for this region even luxurious – impression.
The sawmill makes a very good impression on us, both in terms of its overall appearance and maintenance as well as from the point of view of the high quality of the decking they manufacture for export. The kiln dried decking is wrapped in foil and shipped in strong wooden pallets to prevent damage.
In the late afternoon we reach Rurópolis, a dusty place that you can imagine as a setting for a film about the Wild West. As it will be dark in an hour and a half, we try to find a hotel immediately. However, a local hardware dealer warns us against the two supposedly better hotels in town. Last week he had visitors from Portugal and they left both hotels in disgust. His recommendation is to drive 150 km to Itaituba. Therefore, although we have made it a principle not drive after dark when we travel in these areas, we decide nevertheless to drive on to Itaituba tonight.
It has rained during the afternoon and the road is no longer so dusty. However, the mud often sticks to the tyres and for a while it becomes a real “off-road adventure”.
After about an hour’s drive we reach a section where the Transamazônica has been levelled and we can drive much faster towards Itaituba.
Although the trip was a little stressful last night, we were able to check into the hotel in Itaituba at 9 pm. This morning we cross the Rio Tapajós to Miritituba on a ferry
One last view of Itaituba from the Rio Tapajós.
Once across the river, we head towards the sawmills on the road ahead. This is a very efficient sawmill, which is not often the case around here. In the foreground you can see two conveyor belts used for transporting the sawdust into wooden containers. The sawdust is then taken away and used to produce thermal energy.
Cutting mighty Angelim Pedra logs. “Let’s see if I can get this log rolling”.
At the bandsaw the log is first edged and then split into planks.
The clean parallel sawn planks are now transported to the multiple saw to be cut into scantlings of equal width.
In order to kiln dry the Ipê decking in the best way, it is initially planed to a uniform thickness and then transported to the kiln. After drying it is planed to its final dimensions.
This is the only sawmill I know in Brazil where they clean the floor daily with a vacuum cleaner. Exemplary certainly – or maybe overdoing it a bit, but the overall message is: Quality!
There’s even a “risk map”, where the individual risks are colour-coded and explained in the key on the left. On the upper left corner of the map a “Campo de Futebol” is marked, where employees play football during breaks. This sawmill not only works to achieve quality products, but also tries to procure for its employees good working conditions that are otherwise only known in industrialized nations.
We continue on the BR 163 that connects Santarém (Pará) with Cuiabá in Mato Grosso, 1,770 km to the south. In the middle of nowhere we find this modern petrol station.
On the way we make a short stop at this restaurant. It makes a very nice impression on us in the middle of this dusty road so we stop for some cool drinks.
The BR 163 is heavily travelled by trucks carrying soy from Mato Grosso to the port of Santarém. Fortunately it has rained a bit on the first part of the road, making it a little less dusty than the next stretch. The whirling dust from the trucks passing by is sometimes as dense as fog. Sometimes we can’t see anything at all for a few seconds and have to stop several times. In addition, the dust is so fine that it goes into every crack and everything in the car is covered by a thin layer of dust.
From approximately 40 kilometres before Novo Progresso to Cuiabá in Mato Grosso, the BR 163 is fully paved. That is a great comfort after all the dust and the bumps on the potholed dirt road we have been driving on.
Unfortunately the rainforest has been heavily burned along this road. The forest areas are aggressively exploited by many settlers, who talk about “making unproductive land useable”. The vegetation is simply burned down and then levelled by bulldozers. When the land is “cleaned”, as they say in Brazil, it is sold, mostly as grazing land to farmers or agricultural land to the agri-food industry. Where once there were huge forests from which large amounts of water evaporated, becoming powerful cloud formations which moved southwards and fell as rain, today there are vast soy plantations for export or pastureland for cattle. Beef production is one of the largest economic activities in the Amazon region of Brazil.
It looks like the rainforest destruction in Amazonia is being financed (indirectly) by the Banco da Amazonia!
The signs saying “Preserve a Natureza” (Save Nature) and “Não Jogue lixo nas Margens da Rodovia” (Do not throw rubbish on the roadside) seem to be there just for the sake of keeping up appearances. The reality is rather different!
Fortunately, there are two sawmills in this area that finance surrounding “Projetos de Pequeno Produtores” (Projects of smaller rural communities) related to wood production and then obtain their wood from them. Through these small businesses based on sustainable forest management, the forest acquires a value and is therefore less likely to be destroyed and turned into agricultural or grazing land.
The sawn timber is first air dried outside in year-round temperatures of up to 40 °C, before being processed into the desired products or further dried in a kiln until the required moisture content is reached.
You can order any planing profile you like at this sawmill, as they make and sharpen the knives themselves. In such a remote region this allows independence from the tool manufacturers, which are mostly located in the bigger cities in southern Brazil. We have been told that it can take more than 30 days to ship products up here.
It also has a modern cutting station, where defects in the decking are cut out and the planks are cut to the nearest standard length.
Planing quality to be proud of! Even boards with interlocked grain are planed smooth. Any fibre outbreaks have previously been cut out cleanly.
We have to drive back about 100 km to get to a nearby forest project, and find ourselves on the unpaved portion of the BR 163 again. Once more we are completely covered by dust from the trucks.
On the road from Novo Progresso, towards the border with the state of Mato Grosso, we see again how the forest has been burned to make space for agricultural and grazing land.
The BR 163 is asphalted all the way to Cuiabá, the state capital of Mato Grosso, but unfortunately it is also thoroughly lined with large potholes, as you can clearly see here.
From 23 August to 18 September we were visiting sawmills and monitoring implementation of the EUTR in the state of Pará. Now it’s onwards to Mato Grosso!
We are currently in a post office branch in Sinop, one of the larger towns in Mato Grosso, and are sending more DNA material obtained from trees in forestry projects to be analysed by the Thünen Institute in Hamburg.
Today we are visiting Sindusmad, Mato Grosso’s sawmill association, in the “Casa do Madeireiro” (House of the timber processing industry). We co-operated with Sindusmad to produce our brochure “Floresta em pé” (Sustainable management of the tropical forests in Brazil).
This afternoon we are visiting more sawmills in the region. Here you can see us examining Itaúba logs, as we have potential customers for Itaúba decking.
Naturally we are continuing with our monitoring operations, comparing log labels with the log list from the forestry project.
A beautiful cylindrical Itaúba log on the band saw waiting to be cut into large boards.
Scantlings cut from the Itaúba log in the last picture.
The 10×10 Itaúba scantlings are air-dried for a long time before being further processed.
The sawn timber, most of which is destined to become decking, is air-dried for a long time too.
Here you can see finished Itaúba AD 21×145 mm decking, produced and packaged to customer specifications. The quality is exemplary, and the wood is very homogeneous in colour.
During our visit we watch decking boards being loaded for the US market. As Mato Grosso lies in central South America and the nearest shipping port is 2,300 km away to the south-east, trucks are used for transportation. The cargo area of these trucks is about twice the size of a German articulated lorry and they can carry enough products to fill two 40’ containers. All other agricultural products (soy, beef, cotton etc.) are transported to the shipping ports in the same way and then sent out all over the world.
This sawmill has an exemplary employee canteen, which is considerably cleaner than many a restaurant.
These yellow Cumaru decking boards give a very professional impression. Cleanly planed and neatly packaged!
Well done! Here on the MT 208, one of the dusty dirt roads between Alta Floresta und Cotriguaçu, we find this sign saying “Protect nature. This is no place to dump your rubbish”.
A ‘simple’ service area on the side of the road. As with everything during the dry season, it is completely covered with dust.
On today’s journey of around 400 km there are a number of hazardous wooden bridges to cross like the one shown here. At least we always have a chainsaw in the car, so that we can cut a few planks to repair bridges in an emergency. Incidentally, in Brazil you have to have a permit for a chainsaw, as you would for a pistol or rifle in Germany. A chainsaw is considered to be an „arma ambiental“, a weapon that can be used to destroy nature.
We have now driven 275 km along the MT 208 through the tropical rainforest. Luckily the road has been paved for the last part.
At this point the MT 208 is interrupted by the Rio Juruena. Now we have to wait for the next ferry.
The ferry leaves every three hours. Luckily for us we arrived shortly before the next departure and only had to wait 15-20 minutes.
The ferry has arrived and we are waiting for the cars to drive off. It wouldn’t suit low-riding cars.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the first of today’s sawmills. Here we are monitoring Ipê KD 20×100 mm decking boards for one of our customers. We are satisfied with both the planing quality and the packaging and we release the goods for shipment.
Later on, at one of the last sawmills for today, we are shown the production facilities, including the drying kiln in this picture. Jatóba sawn timber is being dried to 8-10% for solid wood boards.
Naturally we are interested in the ecologically correct provenance of the wood as well as in the technical equipment. This exemplary label clearly shows the AUTEX N° (harvesting permit) including the Processo N° (process number), the Seção (department), the Árvore (log number) and the Faixa (section). On the management plan we can clearly identify the trees that have been selected for harvest.
It’s Monday morning and we’re at a sawmill inspecting Angelim Amargoso logs, which are destined for the production of finger-jointed 45×70 mm subconstruction timber.
Once again we travel along dusty dirt roads for around 200 km to our next destination, passing several rivers on the way. There are no large communities here – only tiny scattered settlements. Most people in this area have no running water and clean themselves and their clothes in the nearest river.
Every time we come this way we stop at the Casa Rosada (the pink house) and fortify ourselves with drinks and delicious cakes. This makes a welcome change in such a dusty wasteland! At this point I could enjoy some ‘hard stuff‘ but we’re not on horseback in the Wild West and anyway I need to be alert for the next three or four hours to drive to our next destination.
We are deeply disappointed, indeed very angry, to have to watch yet more of the rainforest being burned down for agricultural land. On top of that the smoke is very hazardous to people’s health. It makes me furious that timber people like us are pilloried for being destroyers of the rainforests, and yet neither the environmental organisations nor the media report the burning down of the rainforests for cattle farming, even though current information demonstrates that it causes the most widespread destruction by far.
This morning we are looking at some Tamarindo logs from the current harvest. These logs will be made into decking for our customers.
In contrast to the logs in the previous photo, this Garapa log is massive!
A Garapa log being cut on the band saw.
Here I am inspecting sawn timber that is being air-dried for around three months before being brought to the required humidity level in a kiln.
As well as Tamarindo decking, Garapa decking is also being produced for our customers here. I am looking at the planing quality of the Garapa boards, and am suitably impressed.
Of course we are interested in the legal origin of the wood as well as the product quality, and so early this morning we are off to the sawmill’s harvesting area. There is a Fazenda (station) in every legal forest project, where the workers live and are provided with meals during the harvest time. While we are here a lorry driver taking logs from the harvest to the sawmill stops by for a meal. Everything here creates a good impression. The lorries are all of recent date and at first glance seem to be faultless from a technical point of view. The logs also look well tied-down to the loading bed.
I am standing right next to a newly-felled Garapa log with my GPS, so that I can compare the geographical data with the forest map on which the trees destined for harvesting are marked. Everything matches – perfect!
The label with the log number has also been fixed to the stump in the proper way so that it can be monitored at a later date if necessary by the Brazilian environmental authorities (or in this case, us ☺).
Here I am taking samples from the stump for gene analysis (DNA determination) so that I can really be one hundred percent certain, and also so that further comparisons can be carried out.
Here, too, the log label can clearly be seen. It matches the one on the stump in the picture before last.
The forest management plan favours so-called ‘Esplanada‘ – places where a skidder is used to transport and collect the logs, grouping them according to timber variety. Wheeled loaders are then used to put them onto the lorries that will transport them to the sawmills.
A skidder bringing a log to the collection site (Esplanada).