HARD WORK: Raymond Hoosanie's coal pit. —Photos courtesy HEATHER DAWN HERRERA

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Saga of the coal pit

'People used to buy for cooking and ironing'

By heather-Dawn Herrera

In areas of eastern Trinidad where the soil is generally poor, there is a history of coal burning that many people hardly remember.

Areas in and around Valencia and Sangre Grande such as Coal Mine and Long Stretch Reserve have been key areas for coal-burning operations.

In modern times when environmental measures take into consideration emissions of carbon dioxide around us, the conversion of sandy soil into coal, the process, known as carbonisation, has become less frequent..

Due to the lack of oxygen along Long Stretch Reserve, soil quality is very poor. In the rainy season the terrain becomes flooded and in the dry season it is totally dried out. It is this type of sandy soil that Raymond Hoosanie uses to produce coal. According to Hoosanie, not many people in the area do this any more because compared to decades ago, demand has dropped drastically.

"I have been in this business for 20 years. Before that, I used to help my neighbour with his coal pit. People used to buy coal for cooking in their coal pots and for ironing. Those big heavy irons used to be packed with coals.

"We also had a lot of blacksmiths around who used to buy the coal to heat horse shoes. When I started this, demand changed because people now only bought coal to barbecue meat. I still think that to boucaneer meat is better because the meat lasts longer as all the water is dried out. In barbecue you use sauce."

People also use the charcoal for orchids to take root. In the construction industry, coal is used in soakaways to keep down the smell.

Packing a coal pit is hard work. Hoosanie's coal pit is 13 feet by 15 feet and he packs wood to a height of about four feet. He then puts grass and digs and shovels the soil on to the top.

"I use the skid to pack the wood below so that the smoke could penetrate. I then pack pieces of dry wood right through the pit and erect pickets and galvanise to make a moulding right around. I then spread grass on the top so that when I put the sand dirt on top of all that it would not out the burning wood."

Initially, Hoosanie must manage the pit to make sure that the heat is distributed right through by spreading the grass and dirt evenly.

"Some people light up from below but I light from the top in the middle. In this way it is easier to manage the pit. Dry wood takes about a half hour to catch. It usually takes about two weeks for the dirt to bake.

"After the first day you see the sand dirt going down lower. This is when it is drying out. If the wood is green, it takes a month to bake."

Hoosanie does not totally depend on his coal pit for a livelihood. He has a livestock farm. He continues to produce coal only because it keeps him occupied and people have come to depend on him for their supply of "barbecue coal".

"For 120 bags, I retail at $100 per bag. If I do wholesale then it is $60 per bag. When I take into account the money spent in obtaining dry wood and paying for labour to help build the pit, it is not feasible because of the time frame.

"However, I continue to do it because it gives me something to do that can be of use to other people."

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