The peat can be up to 80' deep in the forested, fresh-water swamps of Sarawak and neighboring Borneo in Malaysia. So, Caterpillar tractors and heavy trucks—the traditional log-harvesting machines of tropical forests—only bog down in the muck. Yet, from these dense, dark swamps comes one of the most utilitarian woods in the timber trade.
Ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) is a strong, light-colored wood of fine texture and straight grain that becomes everything from dowels to plywood. And ramin prefers the low, canopied swamp—where little light penetrates—to more open—and drier—high-ground forest. That makes harvest difficult, but not impossible.
In the swamps, laborers lay down a network of skidways made from the trunks of small trees—a thoroughfare much akin to the roads paved with logs (referred to as "corduroy") used in frontier America. From the air, the skidway network in the swamp looks like the branches of a tree. The trunk of the "tree" is a narrow-gauge railroad that totes the cut logs to the distant sawmill.
Ramin logs, normally about 2' in diameter, skid along the wood road on sleds pulled by four- to eight-man teams. When an area of peat swamp becomes depleted of ramin, the loggers move on elsewhere to build their skidways
Because ramin seeds do not readily germinate in an area cleared of trees and their shade, the harvest teams can’t come back for a second crop of logs in their lifetime. But years later, more light-tolerant timber trees appear, such as meranti and shorea. They provide the needed shade for a second growth of ramin.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson