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On the Road Through Ecuador
Article published in Forest Machine Journal (July 1999)

In January 1994 an innovative pilot project, the Awa Sustainable Management Project, was launched to promote sustainable community-based forest management in the San Lorenzo region of Esmeraldas, northwest Ecuador. The project was designed to develop the capacity of forest owning communities to increase their income by managing, harvesting, milling and selling their timber resources.

One of the project's objectives was to supervise and fund the construction of a ‘summer' road - one with only a natural surface and no quarried materials - to the community of El Pan. The constrictions on this type of road are immense. In the rainy season, limited, if any, use can be made of the road. The speed at which the material dries is dependent on the various types of soil. The road was to follow an old used logging road that had been built ten years previously, and which had a mixture of very porous soil near to the community, and good clay situated further away. Some bridges were still standing which were damaged but repairable.

Two machines were used - a D5 Caterpillar for the bulk of the work, with a Gallion 450 grader finishing off. The bulldozer was a forestry specification machine with all over protection and a 35 ton winch with logging arch. This had been bought second hand and overhauled. The machine was 9 years old and had previously been used very hard. However, but for one unfortunate breakdown, the machine worked faultlessly. The Gallion 450 was a Canadian made machine with a 20 ton payload. Some repair work was required before the machine entered the forest, but once there it performed well in difficult conditions.

There was very limited transport in the area, and certainly no low loaders. The machines were transported to the forest on dangerously overloaded six wheel lorries.

Once operational in the forest the machines stayed there for a number of months, with maintenance carried out on site. This was due mainly to the time, and risks, involved in transporting them back to the towns. Preventative maintenance was therefore essential. A wait of up to ten days could be expected for spare parts, with a further two days for delivery to site. This could result in down time of up to a fortnight, waiting for one small spare part for a machine!

A full survey was carried out before starting work. Marking the road was carried out using compasses and sighting sticks. The route was marked by sticks driven into the ground every 50 metres, with a path cut 15 metres either side of the line for an indication of the width of the road.

All trees in the path of the road were left for the bulldozer to fell, as the roots had to be taken out. Trees were felled with the trunk and crown on, giving plenty of top weight to pull them down. Where a large tree was encountered, if it was possible to put the road to one side, this was done. If not, it was removed with a combination of chain sawing and bulldozing - very time consuming. It became evident that the D5 bulldozer was not a large enough machine to build roads - however, this was all that was available. All trees that were away from the road itself, but in the clearance area, were direction felled into the forest, with chainsaws paying attention to felling them through gaps. To remove the trees the machine dug a trench round the tree leaving the root ball. An attempt was then made to push it over in the desired direction; if this attempt failed then a deeper trench was dug until the tree fell. This was a highly dangerous operation and required a very highly skilled operator at the helm.

Topsoil was pushed to one side with the undergrowth so a gap 30m wide was left as the cleared area of the road. This was a very large swath to cut, but was necessary to allow sunlight onto the road to enable the surface to dry.

When cutting the actual road, the highest ground was used for ease of drainage wherever possible. The drainage channels were cut from the road at this stage. This process involved taking an area of lowest elevation with a fall away, and cutting out from the road to the side of the cleared section so that the water would drain down from the side of the road and along into the forest where it would join up with the stream. Once the road had been cut it needed to settle for at least 2-3 weeks This stage in the hardening of the surface was critical. If damaged (by vehicles moving over the road after rainfall) the bulldozer would have to return and remove the damaged material and replace it with new material.

In forest road construction making the camber is probably one of the most important factors in the life of the road. Once the surface is broken or damaged the speed at which it becomes unusable is rapid. It is therefore important to keep it as dry as possible. The job of the camber is to remove the surface water as quickly as possible. The bulldozer angling and tilting its blade like a grader, and pushing the material from the sides of the road to the middle of the road made a camber of 5%. In the early stages the ground was unsuitable for the grader itself to work on, although once the ground dried up the grader could be brought into use. This acted as a good compactor while it was working. There were no vibratory rollers available. Usable road width was only 4 metres, with another 1 metre each side for drainage. The width of the overall clearance area was 15 metres to the side of the forest on straight sections, adding extra ground on corners. Some additional felling was required in the primary rain forest as there were particularly large trees giving too much shade to the road. These trees were felled into the forest to avoid creating a barrier to wildlife and water drainage. Care was taken to ensure that no high value species or seed trees were damaged in the process. Most of the area had been logged to varying degrees during the past 10 years so it was only necessary to cut 4 km into the primary rain forest.

During the road construction a bridge had to be built to cross the river. The materials required for this consisted of tree lengths, planks, and guides. Tree lengths for the bases consist of 4 metre lengths. More smaller tree lengths were needed to put under the area that is directly in front of the bridge (the approach). This area is normally very soft and must be firmed up. Tree lengths sunk into the soil with additional soil spread over them act as supports and help stabilise the bridge.

Firstly a clearance has to be made up to the river. The river then has to be crossed (by laying tree lengths in the water) to clear the other side so that the bridge can be installed. If large enough lengths cannot be found then an alternative crossing point will have to be found elsewhere. This can mean a considerable detour up or down stream. The bulldozer must always go over in reverse so it will be able to winch itself up the other bank, which can sometimes be very steep. Having crossed, it can continue working to clear the approach. This operation is much easier and safer with two machines - one machine continually crossing increases the likelihood of it getting stuck or throwing a track.

Once the two sides have been cleared the bases have to be installed on either side of the river, using two or three lengths of tree either side. The trees have to be sourced in the forest, brought to the bridge site and pulled across to the other side and lined up in unison. This can be time consuming if the trees are not the same size or diameter. Once these are installed the planks need to be sawn out and nailed into place and the guides placed on top of the planks longways making sure they are the correct distance apart for vehicle passage.

The final stage of finishing the bridge is to install lengths of tree under the approaches to the edge of the bridge. If the ground continues to be unstable then a large number will have to be installed. The approaches have to be finished, a camber put on the road right up to the edge of the bridge and the drainage ditches installed so that water runs off the bridge. If the water is allowed near to the bridge it is likely that it would cause damage to the bases.

Two galvanised steel culverts were installed on the road to the community, one double and one single, both 12 metres in length. Buying culverts is very costly. Logging companies have in the past found other solutions to the drainage problems, using decayed trees with holes running along the length of them. Unfortunately these holes tend to be small and quickly become choked with debris. This stops the flow of water or slows it to such an extent that a large lake is formed on the upper side of the culvert. These lakes can build up to huge proportions and lay waste whole areas of forest - causing environmental damage of catastrophic proportions.

The culverts come in half sections and have to be bolted together in set patterns. The trench has to be dug to the level of the water course in a straight line. Ideally it is best to have a back hoe which is able to do the job very quickly. However these are seldom available so bulldozers normally have to be used which makes the work very difficult. Inevitably there is a lot of finishing work that has to be done by hand.

The culverts are placed into the watercourse and shored up on the opposite side to where the earth is being pushed back in. Care must be taken at the back filling stage not to damage the culvert. It is very important to compact the layers of soil until the original level of the road is reached. The drainage ditches are then installed and the camber put on the surface. The run off ditches have to be kept clear of the culverts as this can erode the soil and cause the culvert to become unsafe.

The concrete pipes used were smaller than the culverts, with a diameter of 7500 mm. These have to be assembled in the trench and cemented into position. Once the cement is dry the trench is filled in.

Cross drains are used when one side of the road is higher than the other and the higher side has no drainage, whereas the other side has direct drainage - thus the water has to be brought across the road to drain away. This can be done in either of two ways. The cross drain with pipes method is used when the flow of water is slight as only a small bore pipe can be used (i.e. 6 inch). A small trench has to be dug to install the pipe. The depth of the pipe has to be judged carefully making sure that it has a good angle of run to drain. Ideally this pipe should be located at 500mm from the surface of the road, however this can depend on the height of the camber and the depth of the drainage ditches. If it is located any higher there is a danger of heavy traffic damaging the pipe. There are disadvantages to this method. Both ends of the pipe are susceptible to becoming blocked with matter that has been washed down by the rains. Secondly the pipe can become damaged due to heavy traffic running over it when the road is very wet from heavy rain. Replacements are expensive and difficult to obtain.

The second method, cross drains with boards for traffic, where the ditch is left open, is used as a cheaper option, being quicker and easier to install and also easier to repair. However the system becomes damaged more quickly if care is not taken when crossing the boards. Two boards have to be put in each side to form a safety margin for different dimensions of wheel base vehicle passing over them. The main disadvantage is that they can have less of a life span depending on the type of wood used.

The work was very dangerous. When the bulldozer is felling the work force has to be at least two tree lengths from the machine. Unfortunately, people in third world countries have a great fascination for anything that moves and has an engine. This can result in large crowds of people coming to watch the machines in operation, and even riding on the machines. Naturally operators have strict instructions that this is prohibited.

There were many other factors that made work difficult, including weather conditions and travelling distances and times. Many days of work are lost in the rainy season, which normally runs from December to March, though in 1997 el Niño extended this right through to May.

To minimise lost time the machine operators stay in a specially constructed portable camp which doubled as a work shop and storage facility for tools. A ledger was kept on site to record the checking in and out of all equipment. Fuel and diesel had to be accounted for in the same way. The fuels were housed in a separate secure area to avoid contamination of the sleeping area. Heavy plant had to be guarded at all times, with a rota being organised for nights and weekends and when the plant was out of action.

The machine operators worked a six day week, leaving the forest on Saturday afternoon and returning on Monday morning. This way the four hour return trip was not being lost in the working day. They were also then able to work for at least 10-12 hours per day in the forest. (In reality this was very seldom achieved). The standard of discipline amongst the workers was generally very good. The main problem encountered was drunkenness, with the most difficult period being the first Monday in the month after pay day!

Mark Brewer