By Carly Horton for the Alaska Journal of Commerce - Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands inspect a stump extracted from
The contract is with Ardan International Group, a Panamanian company that pursues environmental projects with an emphasis on working with indigenous peoples. Gunderboom is training members from a local indigenous tribe to help with the project, which will unearth approximately 400 million board feet of lumber that lies in the murky waters of the canal.
An Alaskan company with global vision
Gunderboom provides marine consulting, manufacturing, contracting and commercial diving services. The company was initially invited to
“We started looking at the environmental aspects of the project,” said company president Hal Dreyer. “Even before we were awarded the contract, we started thinking about how we could recover the trees in an environmentally sustainable manner.”
Crews building the structure didn’t cut down the trees before the area flooded more than a century ago.
The project will benefit the environment. The large number of high-quality trees being extracted is not coming out of the forest.
“For every board foot we extract, that’s one less board foot coming out of a green jungle,” Dreyer said.
Also trees decay over time when underwater, and that releases methane and greenhouse gasses. Extracting the trees reduces the amount of gas released into the atmosphere.
The work is primarily being done in two lakes,
An American crewmember working in
“We’ve been working on and off trying to develop this project for two years,” Dreyer said. “Over the course of those two years, we’ve developed a close relationship with the Kuna Indians.”
The Kuna Indians are the indigenous people of
Gunderboom is training members of the Kuna tribe in basic commercial diving, and to use the equipment and techniques to harvest the trees.
The Kuna speak their native tribal language, and many do not speak Spanish. Dreyer said it’s interesting, and challenging at times, to have thee languages being spoken at once.
“Sometimes we have a three-way translation going, with Kuna being translated into Spanish and then into English,” he said.
But according to Dreyer, working with the Panamanian people, and the Kuna in particular, is the most rewarding part of the job.
“The Kuna and all the locals are so interested in learning new skills. They actually enjoy coming to work,” he said. “On weekends we have a facility set up, and you’ll see the Kuna reading translation books on their own.”
Rising to the challenge
Gunderboom has faced its share of obstacles on the work. One was just trying to set up business. It took the company three months to set up a bank account.
“The banking community in
Visibility in the water is fairly low, which Dreyer said is more of an inconvenience than a danger.
But the trees are quite large, some up to 11 feet in diameter at the base.
“It’s actually quite hard to cut a large tree,” he said. “The largest chainsaw blade we have is four feet, which isn’t big enough to cut through that amount of wood. But we’ll figure something out. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Dreyer said the techniques used to cut down underwater trees are essentially the same methods used on land. Hydraulically driven chainsaws are powered by non-contaminating vegetable oil, and divers receive a supply of air through an oxygen tube. They communicate to workers above water using earphones and a mouthpiece attached to a helmet. They also use underwater sonar and GPS tracking equipment.
Still, with more than 30 different species of trees, Dreyer said he’s never sure which type of wood the divers will extract.
“We’re finding that the quality of wood is excellent, but you’re never sure what you’ll be able to sell and get into the market,” he said.
Ardan International markets the wood, which will be used for general construction, flooring and high-end furniture.
Key financial players
Gunderboom is funding the project with a $3 million line of credit from Wells Fargo HSBC Trade Bank, a joint venture set up to mitigate risk and finance middle-market companies looking to export goods overseas or bring new products into the U.S.
The loan carries a 90 percent guarantee from ImEx Bank, a federal government entity that finances
This is largest guarantee ImEx Bank has ever granted to an
Gary Isham, Wells Fargo HSBC Trade Bank senior vice president and northwest regional manager, said there are inherent risks of conducting business overseas, but it is a risk that’s worth it because it generates jobs in the
“The ImEx working capital guarantee program allows us to help companies like Gunderboom by helping structure deals and mitigate risk,” Isham said.
“This is our first working capital deal in
Dreyer said the project has proved rewarding overall, but when it comes to working internationally, he stresses due diligence.
“You can’t take anything for granted because people do things very differently in other cultures,” he said. “It’s quite different out there. It’s been a great learning experience.”