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Tropical forests, beaches, and woodwork: Take a trip for Puerto Rico's climate resilient future

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

To our community members who love woodworking, trees, tropical forests and beaches, stop what you’re doing and pull out your bucket list. The Puerto Rico Artisan EcoTour program, created by our friends at GreenWood, may be a worthy addition. The tour, May 7-16, offers participants six days of world-class woodworking instruction amidst salt air, sun, and three days immersed in the island's diverse tropical forests.

But more than that, as GreenWood’s director Scott Landis told us, it’s a holistic program of hands-on learning about the role of the island’s tropical forests in building climate and economic resilience, plainly needed after catastrophic hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

“The island was inundated with literally millions of cubic yards of salvage wood, almost all of which has either been chipped or is becoming compost,” Landis said.

With long experience of building partner-forest-like relationships between forests and artisans in Honduras, GreenWood was invited by the USDA Caribbean Climate Hub to help build strategies and markets for some of the enormous amount of downed wood, which includes Mahogany, Blue Mahoe, and Ausubo, to name a few. The longer-term goal is to support Puerto Rico in innovation that connects its natural heritage, landscape and culture.

“Massive hurricanes are part of the present and the future, so building resilience is what it’s all about,” Landis said.

For a complex array of reasons, little local capacity exists in Puerto Rico to transform wood into useful lumber, so very few of the hurricane-downed trees were processed or sold. In fact the island meets almost all its need for wood with imports from the mainland United States.

“There's virtually no access apart from a handful of small backyard sawmills set up for very limited use. Minimal connection to local markets or local artisans,” Landis said. “All the luthiers I know in Puerto Rico import their wood, even though Mahogany has been planted and grown [here], and it's a prominent wood used in guitars.”

Wood from trees downed by hurricanes can be used to make beautiful furniture and other objects.

How Puerto Rico ended up with this disconnection between forests and people, despite a rich history of woodworking both Spanish and indigenous—seen, for instance, in the balconies of Old San Juan, Taino wood sculpture, and saint carving—is an intriguing and complex history, Landis explained.

When the United States took possession of Puerto Rico in 1898, the island had been largely deforested for agriculture. Only about six percent of the natural forest was standing. Helped by the U.S. Forest Service, the twentieth century saw the territory aggressively pursue tree planting to the point that today the island is about 65 percent forest, with citizens strongly attached to their woody heritage.

What wasn’t built into this impressive reforestation effort was a strategy of sustainable forest management. But by sheer force recent hurricanes have thinned the forest and sparked a new awareness of this need.

“When you thin a forest, it can actually enhance the quality of the trees and their resilience and resistance to disturbance,” Landis said, noting that “it's about harvesting trees in a responsible way” that has co-benefits for forests, local people, and the economy.

Likewise, these values are the heart of our Partner Forest Program, which seeks to connect the multiple benefits of forests with wider economic and cultural interests, often in urban environments. And at the heart of GreenWood’s Artisan EcoTour is the opportunity to connect these dots, starting with two of the island's most valuable resources: the forest ecosystem and the community of wood artisans. When connected to markets that value both, a sustainable and restorative system emerges that can power long-term conservation.

The tour promises to explore these ideas in depth while developing practical skills in a workshop open to tropical breezes. Led by San Juan’s René Delgado, a Rochester Institute of Technology-trained woodworker and disciple of Wendell Castle, and renowned Canadian furniture maker Michael Fortune, tour participants will get to work with an array of recovered hardwoods. (Watch a conversation between René and Michael about the program here.) Excursions to nearby forests will fill out participants' appreciation of the work and opportunity involved in revitalizing the local wood value chain.

Furniture examples from a recent Michael Fortune Workshop and happy campers in René Delgado's shop.

“It’s not just going for a hike and looking around,” Landis said. “We’re aiming to get deeper.” Participants can expect to try trail clearing, bird-habitat restoration, and seed collection, as well as tree planting with discussions about the most appropriate species and why.

A few spots are left on the current tour, “Forests to Furniture.” More tours are in the works with spotlights on woodturning, carving, sculpture, lutherie, and other popular woodworking skills.

A special group-rate stay at the Verdanza Hotel is included in the price for off-island participants. Learn more and reserve your spot here.

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