Most Westerners who travel in the Philippines tend to stick to the “touristy” areas. The big cities, such as Manila, or beach resorts in places like Cebu, or Palawan. Even Westerners who live there often prefer those types of places because of the western style amenities they offer. Marlyn and I tend to take a different approach. We favor the rural areas. Places like the rice farming community where she grew up, or the mountain grasslands where we are building our retirement home. There, we often encounter things many tourists may never see. On our last visit, I had the chance to see a fair sized charcoal making operation.
A great number of people in the rural parts of the Philippines cook over open fires. For many, it’s the only method available to them. Often, even people who have a gas stove inside the house will opt to cook outside. Charcoal is the usual fuel for these cook fires. The charcoal used here is not the powdered and shaped briquettes, but the natural style, sometimes called “lump charcoal” in the USA.
It is made locally, the old fashioned way, often in small, backyard pits.
To make charcoal, wood, has to be burned in a low oxygen environment. This leaves a carbonized product, more easily flammable than the original fuel. The way this is done in the Philippines is to first, dig a pit. The wood is then layered in with tinder. In the Philippines, this is often rice straw. The stack is loosely covered with the dirt previously taken from the pit. Boards are wedged against the sides to hold the mound of dirt in place. A small opening is left near the bottom so the tinder can be lit. The dirt prevents the fire from getting enough oxygen to flare up and consume the wood. Instead, the wood smolders and reduces down to charcoal. As the pit burns, the small opening is kept clear to ensure there is enough oxygen in the pit to keep the fire from suffocating altogether.
During our last visit, we had the opportunity to watch this process up close. We were camped on our property, getting to know the neighbors, and laying out where we wanted our house to be built. Our neighbor to the east has a very nice and well-built structure in a patch of preserved old growth forest. He has used it in the past for family gatherings and such. More recently, it has served as a cow house for his herd of brahma cattle.
In 2011, a powerful typhoon swept through the region. The area around the cow house was left in a tangled up mess. The creek had flooded and several large trees had been uprooted or blown down. The building itself was undamaged, but the cattle couldn’t get to it. The place quickly became overgrown and mosquito infested.
Late last year (2012), he contracted with some of the other neighbors to clean the place up. They attacked the tangle of downed trees with chainsaws and bolos. The large trunks were sawn into lumber. The limbs, root balls, and small trees were burned for charcoal. By the time we got there in December, the trunks had been sawn up and hauled away. The charcoal operation however, was in full swing.
It takes two to three days, or more for all the wood to burn down to charcoal. To prevent the fire from going out, or the wood from burning up, the pit has to be watched constantly. The owner of the cow house came by when we first arrived. He let us know what was going on, and that the chainsaws, smoke, and all the people on his place were legitimate. The 24-hour nature of the project didn’t dawn on us until a few days later.
Each night, we sat by our campfire, watching the parade of stars in a dark sky, unpolluted by city lights. Each night, at about the same time, someone with a flashlight walked down the mountain on the dirt road leading past our place. People frequently walk up or down the mountain at night here. But this one was different. Instead of staying on the road toward the barangay proper, the person climbed through the fence, and cut across the corner of our property. Night after night, we watched the light bob past us and disappear into the forest to our east. Night after night, we speculated on who it might be and what they were doing. Then it dawned on us that the light was following the most direct route to the cow house and the active charcoal pits.
Near the end of our stay, I walked down to the cow house to have a look for myself. There, I found our nearest neighbor, Elizabeth tending the smoldering pits. Her youngest son, Joey and some other kids were with her. There were sleeping quarters set up in the loft. On the ground, there was the ever-present pot of pinakbet simmering away over a charcoal fire. The area was as clean and clear as when we first saw it years ago. The owner got his place cleaned up, and our other neighbors got some income from the sale of the charcoal. A win for all concerned.
Pete McKee grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. After a 20 year career in the US Army, he worked as a museum professional, and in the transportation industry. Marlyn, his wife of 29 years, was raised on a rice farm in Nueva Vizcaya. She has worked in Europe and the US in hotel and restaurant management, and as an IT professional. Their dream of retiring to a small farm in the mountains is coming true in the foothills of the Cordillera Mountains of central Luzon.