The cathedral of the forest

Guyana Chronicle

March 27, 1999

HAVING just put together a mosaic collection of some of Guyana's woods, I am reminded that wood is very important to Guyanese and West Indian people.

In cricket, we talk about getting `good wood' on a ball, which flies to the boundary from the bat.

`Hard wood' is particularly prized by Caribbean men.

The sights, smells and sounds of the sawmill, which seemed to run non-stop, are favourite memories of mine, growing up in Guyana. Guyana's forest, which covers more than 80 per cent of the country, is a fine exhibition of both soft and hard woods. More than 1 000 tree species can be found in Guyana's forests, and it is estimated that 10 per cent of the plants may have medicinal value, but less than one per cent of them have been examined for their chemical composition.

These forests, although underdeveloped, are at risk, owing to inadequately controlled logging, unplanned economic development, and the absence of a sustainable forestry management system. Toward this end, the Iwokrama Programme which occupies 900,000 acres of pristine forest in Guyana, has been established, with the goal of sharing and sustaining the vast treasure and resources that are stored in the rain forests.

But it is the wood, and its potential, which continue to fascinate me.

Hard woods such as Wallaba, Greenheart, Mora, Bullet Wood, Purpleheart, Tatabu, Suradan, Kabukalli, Crabwood, and Candle Wood, and softer woods such as Manni, Silverballi, Kurokai and Shibadan, are splendid examples of nature's profusion in Guyana. Many of the trees, tall and majestic, some nearly 200 feet high, are crowned with splendid foliage, in the cathedral of the forest.

Wallaba, comprising three varieties, is one of the most abundant timbers in Guyana. It is used for fuel, charcoal, shingles, fences, telephone, electricity and other posts, house frames, railway sleepers, and paving blocks. Wallaba wood for fuel, used to be sold at wood-kokers, along the Demerara River.

Greenheart, a very fine-grained hard wood, is perhaps Guyana's best known wood. It comes in three species - black, white and brown. When cut, it has a greenish-yellow colour. It is used in construction in salt water, for piles and dock gates, for ship-building, wharf, bridge and house construction, and even fishing rods. It is extremely hard, durable, and termite-resistant. A greenheart piling in a harbour can last for more than 50 years, submerged in the water.

However, a splinter in your finger or foot can give you hell!

Interestingly, the greenheart tree gives a fruit, from which the Amerindians used to make bread.

Mora, a beautiful coarse-grained hard wood, is equal to East India Teak and superior to Oak. It is not subject to `dry-rot' and does not splinter. It is used for ship-building, planking wharves and bridges, house-building, railway sleepers, and wood paving. Next to wallaba, it is one of the most common woods found in Guyana.

Another very hard wood is Bullet Wood, appropriately named, for legend has it that this wood is so hard, it can even deflect bullets! It is as heavy as lead!

A sentimental favourite of Guyanese is the Purpleheart - a wood which is brown when freshly cut, but rapidly turns to purple. As it gets older, the colour darkens so that at last it becomes as black as ebony! It is close-grained and extremely hard. It is used for furniture, veneering, and house-framing. There is nothing more beautiful than a Purpleheart Berbice chair, but it is so solid, you might need a porter to help you move it around.

The Kabukalli, a red-brown wood is hard and durable, and gives off an offensive smell while being worked. It is used for furniture, house- and boat-building, railway sleepers and paving blocks.

A moderately hard wood is Guyanese Mahogany or Crabwood - a red-brown wood resembling mahogany, which is slightly open-grained. It is used for house-building, furniture, fencing, canoes, ship-building, masts and spars. It gives a beautiful finish when sanded and polished. Crabwood Creek in Berbice is named after it.

Silverballi, also called kereti, is a soft wood used in furniture-making. Other forest woods include manabadin, kurida, and mangrove, (used for fishing rods, walking sticks and arrows).

The Balata, a deep red-brown, fine-grained wood, is very hard and durable. Life-long cricket bats for street cricket, were made from it, as every school boy would know. Gum from the Balata tree could also be made into cricket balls, among many other things. Valuable timber trees include the Awasakuli; Bania (ebony) - a purplish-black hard wood; Baramalli; Kurana (red cedar); Dakama; Fotui (used for making matches and boxes); Hububalli; Kakeralli; Kartang; Kauta; Simiri (locust) - a rich brown wood which looks beautiful when polished; Morbukea; Tauroniro; Wadaduri (monkey pot); Waikey; Wamara; and Yaruru (paddle wood).

Additionally, there is Black Cinnamon; White Cinnamon; Acoucoa; Letter Wood; Iron Wood; Bully Tree; Cope Tree; Silk Cotton (a tree I wouldn't cut down as it is supposed to put a jinx on you); Palisade; Troolies (long leaves used for covering the roofs of buildings in the country districts); Bois Pian; Bois Riviere (river wood); Lauriera Caca (laurel wood with a very unpleasant smell as its name implies); Bois Perdrix (partridge wood); Olivier (olive tree); Contrevint; Sea-side Grape (cocolaba - found near the seashore); Bois Diable (devil wood - blood-red and very hard, it is used for firewood and burns devilishly green, as its name suggests); Sour Orange; Grigris (grey grey - dark lead colour); Boisseladame; Boisfourmi (ant wood tree which is always crawling with ants); Bois Jaune (yellow wood); White Cedar; Bois Anglois (English wood); and Bois Cote (side wood).

There is also gommier (a gum tree, its residue was burnt as torches by the slaves as they hunted for croaking crapauds at night); Chatanier Grand Feuille (resembles a chestnut tree); Poix Doux (soft resin wood); Branda; Bois Sept Ans (wood which does not usually last for more than seven years); Bois Violon (a violin type, light wood); Bois Frai (extracts from the leaves used by the Amerindians to stop haemorrhaging); Laurier Blanc (white laurel); Mahaut Cochon; Rose Mahaut; Bara Bara (bears an apple fruit which is poisonous and is used by the Amerindians for killing fish, but which does not prove injurious to those who eat the fish); Savonette (toilet wood which forms a lather with water); Galba; Bois D'ail (garlic wood which has the smell of garlic); Boistan (tan wood); Pommier (apple tree); Bois Blanc (white wood); Bois Glue (gluey wood); Corkwood (very Buoyant and used for making rafts, floats, fish pots, etc.); and Mastich, to name a few!

The potential in Guyana's forests seems unlimited. The forest and its trees remain a living laboratory. It is left for good government to promote the forest's conservation, and sustainable and equitable use, in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic, and social benefits to all the people of Guyana and to the world.

Only time will tell.