Coal Bed in Crooked Tree
Charcoal making in a coal bed is a traditional occupation in rural Belize that has now become almost extinct. I had some experience as a youth helping my father with his coal beds as we processed and gathered the charcoal for sale; I can say that the preparation of charcoal in a coal bed is an arduous and dirty task. It was done by only a few villagers as a last resort to earn a little money to provide for their large families in Crooked Tree Village when seasonal jobs were hard to come by. The charcoal was a cash product with limited use in the village, because cooking and baking was done with firewood – usually from oak or logwood. Villagers would sell their charcoal in burlap (called crocus) sacks to the sole buyer in the village, Isaac Jones Sr., who would transport them in his small riverboat to Belize City for sale to customers in the bakery business.
The coal beds were concentrated in what is locally known as the “Pine Ridge” area of the village. The oak, palmetto and pine trees that are used in making a coal bed are most common in this area, growing in the wild among the cashew and countless other fruit and berry trees. Large and middle-sized oak trees are cut down with an axe, trimmed, and chopped into logs which are stacked, with the larger logs placed on top and across two parallel pine planks that form the first layer of the bed. The progressively smaller oak logs are stacked on top in a rectangular shaped bed, approximately six feet high and varying in length and width. The logs are then covered with a thick layer of palmetto leaves to enable ventilation and to separate the logs from the thick layer of sand that would then be used to cover the logs in the final preparatory stage for burning.
To facilitate the slow burning process against the wind, the coal bed is usually spread from west to east. It is completely covered with dirt, except for the west end which is stacked with tarry, flammable pine wood that is a durable source of ignition. After the fire is set to the pine wood to start the burning process, palmetto leaves are quickly placed over this part of the bed and covered with sand. At this point, ventilation holes are poked in both sides of the bed until you can see puffs of smoke gushing from the holes. This signals that the burning is underway. To control the burning process, the first set of ventilation holes extends only to a third of the bed and is monitored closely throughout the week or so that it takes to complete. When the smoke is no longer coming from the first set of ventilation holes, that’s the signal that the burning has reached that point and new holes have to be made farther down the bed to facilitate the ventilation. After the burning process, the bed is left to cool off for a few days before the coal is gathered into crocus sacks for sale.
By: Winfield Tillett
Photo by:W. Maheia