Forestry firm nurtures trees and town

Monterrey Forestal's main objective in covering the land around Zambrano with 15 million ceiba, eucalyptus, and other trees by 2003 is to ensure reliable, renewable wood harvests -- and substantial profits -- for years to come. But by doing so, the company is helping to reforest a mountainous, tropical country faced with serious deforestation. It is also helping to reverse the dehumanizing conditions that result when rural people migrate to overcrowded cities in search of work. The promise of 15 million trees in the fields around this northern Colombian village is impressive. Perhaps even more so is the prospect of a small, rural community able to support its population.

Monterrey Forestal SA -- a subsidiary of Pizano SA, one of the largest corporations in Colombia -- moved into the region four years ago with an ambitious program for people as well as profits.

``They are one of the most socially conscious firms in Colombia,'' according to Amparo Giraldo, a human development consultant from Bogot'a. She was hired by Monterrey to engineer the human side of the tree-harvesting project. ``Their intention in coming to this area was to benefit the rural population, especially the people of the town of Zambrano,'' she says.

Perdita Huston, an American writer on development issues, supports this view of the company. Three years after Monterrey moved into the area, she visited the town and was particularly impressed with the impact of the company on the lives of the local unemployed.

``The very fact that [Monterrey] hired a social worker and consultant to look at what the people's needs were -- how to go beyond welfare into making them more employable -- is an example of corporate enlightenment,'' she says. ``They hired a person to look at the town from a social point of view. They created income activities outside of their corporate employment opportunities. The company didn't just focus on those they could employ -- it took on the whole family and the whole village.''

Jorge Amezquita, operations director of Monterrey Forestal, explained the company's choice of the land near Zambrano for its tree farm:

``Zambrano is on the Magdalena River, so the lumber can easily be floated down to our processing plant in Barranquilla on the coast. Also, Zambrano is a quiet town that can provide us with the manpower we need.'' By ``quiet,'' Mr. Amezquita meant that there is no guerrilla activity -- a problem that besets much of the Colombian countryside.

The contrast between the company's sleek, modern office building -- with its jungle-fringed sleeping and dining quarters for staff biologists, geneticists, and other tree experts -- and the town is dramatic.

Situated in the province of Bol'ivar, one of Colombia's poorest regions, Zambrano has a population of about 9,000. The town grew up along the steamy west bank of the Magdalena at a time when water transport was the only means of access to the area.

In the past, most of the townspeople depended for their livelihood on the local tobacco industry. But nowadays there is little work in the tobacco fields, and times are hard.

Like most, if not all, Latin American towns, Zambrano boasts an impressive Roman Catholic church at its center. None of its streets are paved. The houses range from adobe-and-stick thatched huts to cinder-block structures with white washed walls and brightly painted trim. Almost none of the houses have more than two or three rooms, and many have only one. Pigs and chickens often share the streets -- and the houses -- with their human inhabitants.

While almost all of the homes in Zambrano are supplied with electricity (many have TV sets -- some have refrigerators), less than 30 percent have indoor plumbing, and even fewer have easy access to clean drinking water. Until Monterrey Forestal set up shop outside the village, many people in Zambrano who needed them did not have jobs.

``Monterrey Forestal has done wonderful things for this area,'' says Ms. Giraldo. Already the company employs more than 150 men on the tree farm. And when the first crop is ready to harvest in 1991, this number will greatly increase.

In addition, Giraldo organized a group of about 20 women in Zambrano who are now employed by Monterrey.

According to Colombian law, all factory workers must be supplied by their employers with three work uniforms each year. Thanks to Giraldo's planning skills -- and her powers of persuasion with the women in Zambrano, who had grave doubts at first about their industrial abilities -- the uniforms for the workers in Monterrey Forestal's Barranquilla plant are now made exclusively by the Club Femenino de Zambrano. Monterrey Forestal pays the women of Zambrano the going industrial wage for their work.

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