Association of Self-Employed Forest-Workers in Trinidad: A History of Collaboration and Confrontation

Claus-Martin Eckelmann[1] and Irwin Joseph


Woodworkers in Trinidad are self-employed forest workers who earn a livelihood by felling trees and converting them into logs or charcoal. Traditionally, they work independently but some of them have formed self-help cooperatives. Neither the charcoal burners' nor the woodworkers' cooperatives can be considered as co-management organizations. Their primary objective has been to improve the members' livelihoods. In the case of the charcoal burners' cooperatives this was achieved through the marketing of the product. For the woodworkers' associations, the main function has always been to lobby for increased timber allocations. However, all four associations acted as partners to the public forest administration and as such actually contributed to the silvicultural program of the Forestry Division.

This paper looks at the history of these associations. Most of the information presented is based on interviews with local people who are or were members of those associations or had contacts with those organizations. Among them is one of the authors, Irwin Joseph, who worked as a forester in the Valencia Range from 1964 to 1970.

In addition to documenting the history of the associations, the objective of this paper is to research aspects of the socio-economic conditions, and the specific silvicultural and institutional environment, which contributed to the development of those groups and to analyse the role these associations played in the context of the forest development in Trinidad.


Trinidad, the larger island of the state of Trinidad and Tobago is located between the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea just north of the Orinoco Delta. Approximately 30 % of the island is still covered with humid tropical forest.

A woodworker in Trinidad is a man earning his livelihood by working in the forest, but unlike the "forest worker", he is self-employed. Woodworkers fell trees and convert them into logs or charcoal. Those who produce charcoal only are called charcoal burners. Woodworkers, like charcoal burners, traditionally work independently, but over the years some of them have organised themselves in co-operatives and associations. The membership of those organizations range from 30 to 60 members and each organization is associated with specific forest areas in Trinidad.

Very little is documented about the history of these associations. Most of the information presented in this paper is based on interviews with local people who are or were members of those associations or had contacts with those organisations. Among them is one of the authors, Irwin Joseph, who worked as a forester in the Valencia Range from 1964 to 1970

In addition to documenting the history of the associations the objective of this paper is to research aspects of the socio-economic conditions, and the specific silvicultural and institutional environment, which contributed to the development of those groups and to analyse the role these associations played in the context of the forest development in Trinidad.

Charcoal Burners Co-operatives

The Trinidad High Shelter Wood System, developed and practised since 1935 in the Arena Forest Reserve, required the removal of undesirable species and unproductive undergrowth to establish a shelter wood for the natural regeneration of the forest. Charcoal burners obtained the right to fell trees in areas specified by the Forestry Department and to convert them to charcoal. This production was done individually but the sales were conducted jointly through the St Raphael Charcoal Burners Co-operative. Each member of the association had to contribute ten percent of the sales value of his charcoal towards the operating cost of a vehicle. In 1938, the charcoal burners co-operative was established on the initiative of a 3 rd grade forest ranger, who apparently played an important role in the management of the association. The association functioned until approximately 1948, and there is no information available as to why it dissolved.

A second association, the North Oropouche Charcoal Makers Co-operative was associated with the Melajo Forest Reserve. Increased timber harvesting after the establishment of a new sawmill (1934) in the reserve attracted a large number of charcoal burners. In the beginning of the exploitation the charcoal burners exercised the right to convert the branches of felled trees into charcoal. From 1956 charcoal burners were needed by the Forestry Division to clear exploited forest areas for the establishment of pine plantations.

Little is known about the establishment of the co-operative. However, from interviews it appears as if the local co-operative officer played a vital role in the establishment.

Co-operative officers were based throughout the country and served under the Office of the Commissioner of Co-operatives in the Ministry of Labour and Co-operatives. The Commissioner of Co-operatives was responsible for the registration and monitoring of all co-operatives in the country.

The North Oropouche Charcoal Burners Co-operative was registered in 1956, with approximately 50 members, anyone who had an interest in manufacturing charcoal was encouraged to become a member. They jointly owned a vehicle to transport the charcoal and the charcoal burners to work. The operating costs for the association, mainly the cost for the vehicle, were financed through contributions. Each member had to buy a specified amount of shares and contribute ten percent of the sales value of the charcoal. The co-operative supported its members with a system of small loans for domestic needs. The annual report of the Forestry Division of 1956 mentioned a number of privileges that were granted exclusively to the members of the association, for example the free use of timber to build simple huts in the forest and the right to grow agricultural crops on forestland.

However, mismanagement, an internal dispute about a jointly owned vehicle and the sales practices caused the disintegration of the association approximately four years after it was established. The exact date remains unclear and it is also unknown what happened to the assets of the co-operative, which included the vehicle.

Woodworkers Associations

In contrast to the charcoal burners associations the woodworkers associations originated out of the general scarcity of resources and a political decision to utilise state-owned timber resources to provide income opportunities for unemployed rural people. Rural people without employment were/are granted the right to buy from the Forestry Division either ten timber trees or 500 cubic feet (14,15 m3). of timber. The trees are sold standing and the licensees are allowed to fell the trees and log them to the roadside where sales are negotiated with the saw millers.

Two woodworkers associations were established in Trinidad, with one still functioning. Both were established in connection with the introduction of the Periodic Block System, which defines annual felling areas. After harvesting the block is closed for 30 years to regenerate naturally.

The Valencia Woodworker Co-operative Association was registered in 1968 as an association within of the Valencia Agricultural Co-operative. The establishment followed the initiative of the local forester and the advice of the local co-operative officer. The Valencia woodworkers assisted the Forestry Division in patrolling the forest to combat illegal logging and also served as a counterpart for the Division to revise the list of bona fide licensees. The system of bona fide licensees was established to ration the available timber resources. In the Valencia Range the list of bona fide licensees consisted of 120 woodworkers who did not have any permanent employment.

In theory the woodworkers were free to sell their logs to whoever offered the best price. However, the practice was often undermined and some woodworkers ended up being a de facto employee of the saw millers. Many woodworkers did not have the money to pay the royalty rate up-front or did not own a chainsaw or simply could not afford a logging tractor to haul the logs, so the saw millers would advance the money. In return the woodworker was obliged to sell the logs to him.

The purchase of a wheel tractor to haul the logs, well demonstrates the structural dependency of the woodworkers. A local saw miller provided the Association with a loan for the down payment and the security at the bank for the purchase of a logging tractor. In return the members of the Association were obliged to sell their logs to this particular saw miller. Although the management of the vehicle was the sole responsibility of the association, it created a de facto dependency.

But as with North Oropouche Charcoal Burners Co-operative the management of the vehicle was one of the major factors that contributed to the disaffection of the membership. From the inception, the tractor was placed on a six-day roster per week; at the end of each week the tractor would have extracted the logs of six members. This arrangement ran smoothly for about one year, after which it was reported that the driver was not carrying out the directive and was actually extracting logs for non-members while members were left waiting. But the management of the vehicle was not the only problem. Many woodworkers complained that the saw miller to whom they were obligated by reason of his assistance in the purchase of the vehicle was taking advantage of them, through log measurements, which were unfair, to them. Some members invited other saw millers to purchase their logs to the annoyance of a few members of the executive of the co-operative. As a result of the internal conflicts the association ceased functioning in the middle of the 1970s. An exact date and the modalities are unknown.

The second woodworkers co-operative is linked to the Rio Claro West Range. In 1960 the Forestry Division introduced the Periodic Block System in Rio Claro and the woodworkers vehemently opposed this because they felt it would diminish their access to timber. In response to this decision an individual woodworker united the woodworkers and encouraged them to establish the Nariva Mayaro Woodworkers Co-operative. It functions mainly as an advocacy group to lobby for higher timber allocations but it also serves as a counterpart for the Forestry Division in the allocation of timber resources to the woodworkers.

There is consensus among the woodworkers that the Forestry Division does not want to give to the members the trees they desire and that the forest has better trees that should be sold. It is obvious that Forestry Division's viewpoint is different, as they want to retain a sufficient number of good trees for future cutting cycles. Despite those conflicts there is some collaboration between the co-operative and the Division. Members of the co-operative assist the Forestry Division in the construction of minor access routes, loading bays, and bridges along the extraction routes. In this arrangement the Forestry Division provides the material and technical guidance while the co-operative contributes free labor to the state.

The association is still functioning today and this may be attributed to two main reasons. One is the personality of the president of the co-operative; it is the same person who initiated the formation of the group. The second reason may be that the group never ventured into any joint management activities like, for example, the joint ownership of logging equipment, over which conflicts could have arisen.

Comparison between the Charcoal Burners and the Woodworkers Co-operatives

While charcoal burners and woodworkers associations appear to be similar in their main features as they are both organizations of self-employed people, there are considerable differences between them with regards to the resource base, the product, the economics, their dependencies on other players and their relation with the Forestry Division. Reviewing commonalties and differences between both groups may help to draw lessons from their development with regards to today's approaches to participatory forest management.

Resource base

For the charcoal burners there are no indications that the wood to make charcoal was limited. The areas that the Forestry Division offered to the charcoal burners were apparently extensive enough to fulfil everybody's requirements. In contrast, the availability of timber was the main problem for woodworkers. The availability of timber always had two aspects: One is the resource base itself. As the Forestry Division realized that the traditional practice of only applying a minimum girth limit was not sustainable the Periodic Block System was introduced; this reduced the amount of annually available timber. A second aspect has to do with resource allocation, i.e. the tradition to grant timber trees to rural people with no permanent income. This preferential access to state owned timber resources is a political decision to support rural communities. It appears as if over the years this general decision was handled in a flexible manner and that criteria and practices changed over the years. An important question in this context is who is eligible to buy timber. By establishing a list of bona fide licensees the available timber was rationed only to woodworkers and excluded saw-millers in the Valencia Range. In contrast to the Rio Claro Range where saw-millers were entitled to buy trees but only the same amount as that for the woodworkers. Also a less stringent measure for the saw millers at Rio Claro, it is still a restricted market.


Charcoal is a rather uniform product. Charcoal produced in the same area from a similar combination of tree species can easily be sold jointly to the consumers. As long as there was a demand joint marketing was beneficial to all. With timber it is different, the species, dimension, maturity, internal qualities and possible felling damage all determine the price. Therefore, woodworkers would hardly agree to sell their logs together in order to divide the income. In addition to that the individual woodworkers are actually competing for the better trees, more so if the resource base is limited. Their income is directly dependent on the quality of the tree they get. Despite the fact that they are competitors among themselves they realized that they had more to gain by forming an association with two main objectives: One is to create a counterbalance against the economically more powerful saw millers and to secure their preferential access to more timber.


While the skills of the charcoal maker may be similar to that required by a woodworker, the charcoal burner requires less capital. A comparison based on today's stumpage fees shows the difference. The fee for one cord of wood (a stockpile of 3.62 m3) of any species used for charcoal production is TT$ 0,60. (6 TT$ ~ 1 US$). This is minuscule when compared with the stumpage fee for timber trees (TT$ 38 /m3 for class 1 and TT$ 31 /m3 for class 2 species). As timber harvesting calls for heavy equipment, the extraction costs are also higher with approximately TT$ 55 to TT$ 70 per m3. Charcoal extraction does not require any equipment, as it can be carried out as head load.

Many woodworkers started out as charcoal burners but later changed to timber harvesting as it was seen as a more lucrative enterprise. This was accelerated when charcoal was no longer in great demand. The timber harvest offers greater returns than the charcoal burning, but the initial investments were often beyond the financial resources of the individual. A chainsaw and a logging tractor were needed and they both were expensive. When this money was not at hand, the woodworker had to accept credits offered by the saw-millers, which in return placed the woodworkers in an unfavorable negotiating position.


As shown above the woodworkers often depended on the saw-miller. In the case of the Valencia Woodworkers Co-operative Association, a saw-miller actually assisted the Association in purchasing a logging tractor. While in general this kind of formal arrangement is better for the association than for the individuals who are often left at the mercy of the saw-miller, even this arrangement did not last long and led to internal conflicts among the woodworkers. Compared to the woodworkers the charcoal burners were less susceptible to external influences. As long as they had a market and mainly by joining forces in marketing they could sell a finished product to the consumers. This made them independent from the influence of the middlemen.

Relation to the Forestry Division

In their relationship to the Forestry Department the charcoal burners were in a better bargaining position than were the woodworkers. The charcoal burners provided a service the Forestry Division required to implement their silvicultural program. In comparison to the charcoal burners the preferred access of the woodworkers was based on a political decision to use the state timber resources to provide self-employment opportunities for rural people. The woodworkers often felt that forestry personnel did not want to issue to them the trees they desired. The differences are reflected in the nature of both types of associations. The charcoal burners were more focused on common activities, for example the marketing while the woodworkers associations saw themselves more as advocacy or pressure groups. It appears as if the woodworkers associations were more united and stronger when the Forestry Division exercised a tighter control of the forest resources. In times when more timber was available to the woodworkers their institutions weakened, probably because there was sufficient timber for all and lobbying for more was not necessary.

Analysis of the Development of the Associations and their Influence on Forestry in Trinidad

In most instances the genesis of associations could be traced to individuals. In three of the four described associations it was a government officer who encouraged individual group members to formalize their groups. In all cases an informal group preceded the formal establishment of the group.

Analyzing the history of the three dysfunctional organizations it shows that the establishment of the associations and the management of the organization in the early stages followed approved democratic practices. However, as the organization grew it appears as if more and more members felt that they were left out from important decision-making processes and therefore left the organizations in disgust. All four associations showed a high interdependency with their respective leaders. Mismanagement of funds, loss of confidence in their leaders and internal disputes over procedures, for example the misuse of jointly owned vehicles, were main reasons for their disintegration.

It also appears as if it is easier to establish an association than to maintain it. The establishment of the association often received the required assistance from government officials, but for the actual management the group was left on its own. This is a structural problem and cannot be solved easily because of the self-help character of the associations. If guided too much by external forces or assistance, an organization could lose its autonomy and independence.

The associations flourished as long as they provided tangible benefits for their members. These were the advantages of joint marketing or stronger negotiation position with the Forestry Division or saw millers. But associations have no effect or only very limited effect with regards to market forces. The charcoal burners co-operatives even disappeared before charcoal was widely substituted by other cooking fuels. And despite the sound political intentions of providing rural poor with preferred or at least equal access to timber resources, the specific conditions of the timber trade still made them susceptible to becoming dependent on the economically more powerful saw millers.

What defines the relationship between the charcoal burners and woodworkers co-operatives on one side and the Forestry Division on the other side are complementary group interests. As long as the interests of both groups were concurrent they complemented each other in their activities, like for example the charcoal burners when they prepared the shelterwood. An other example is the Valencia Woodworkers Association as they patrolled the forest against illegal logging because trees stolen by outsiders were lost for the Valencia woodworker. Neither the charcoal burners nor the woodworkers co-operatives can be considered as co-management organisations. The sustainable management of a forest resource was not their concern. Their primary focus was to improve their livelihood. In the case of the charcoal burners co-operatives it was the marketing of their product. For the woodworkers associations the main issue was, and still is, to ensure increased timber allocations to its members. However, all four associations acted as partners to the forest administration and as such actually contributed to the implementation of the Forestry Division's silvicultural programs. Despite the differences in their main objectives this kind of collaboration in general impacted positively on forest management.


Bell, T.I.W., 1971. Arena Reserve Working Plan. Unpublished document of the Forestry Division of Trinidad and Tobago, 118p.

Beard, J.S., 1946. The Natural Vegetation of Trinidad and Tobago. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 151p

Forestry Division Trinidad and Tobago, Annual Report of 1956

[1] Forestry Officer, FAO Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean, Barbados. Email: claus.eckelmann@fao.org