Cuban “extreme” agriculture or extreme sport?
Cuban pruner or “desmochador,” Omar Aguilar, carries his ropes on his shoulder as he walks through thick bush in a forest of Royal Palm trees. He is cool, walks slowly like a tiger looking for prey, but he is not hunting for animals. He is hunting for a plant to feed pigs with. His job is to climb Cuban Royal Palms, the tall, majestic, hurricane-proof tree, and carefully lower its fruit to the ground.
The Cuban Royal Palm grows wild all over the island and offers food for animals, berries to produce palm oil, fiber to make waterproof roofs, strong rope, hardwood and even brooms to sweep floors.
Omar looks up to the high trees to spot the branches with ripe berries. When he locates a worthwhile one with at least three clumps, he hugs the tree with a short rope stretched between each hand, adjusts his grip with his right knee and left foot and, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, he starts climbing the trunk step by step.
During the days before the picture shoot I asked Omar, “Do you use spikes on your boots to get up those trees?” Omar looked at me as if insulted. “No, that’s for electricians to climb power poles.” Omar’s is an ancient technique that was handed down over generations; they use simple ropes, a sheath of dried and hardened laminate from the same palm tree to cover his right knee for better grip, and no high-tech mountaineering ropes, safety clips or sophisticated equipment.
When he reaches the top he selects a clump of ripe fruit, threads one end of a long rope through the branches, and shouts, “Pull!” His assistant on the ground pulls the other end of the long rope tight, and as Omar balances the heavy clump on the rope while cutting it free, the mass of berries slides cleanly down the rope making a soft landing on the ground. Each branch can weigh up to 200 pounds. The process is done swiftly with clockwork precision, again and again.
When he is done Omar descends each tree step by step or, if he finds the surface of the tree trunk smooth enough, simply loosens his grip to slide down, trusting the rope to keep his plunge under control.
The work of desmochadores may not be an Olympic sport, but it certainly requires great skill, courage and technique. Omar said, “This is something that runs in the family blood. My 16-year-old son does it, my father did it, so did my grandfather, and I started when I was 10.”
I felt like I was practicing “extreme” photography to document extreme agriculture. Carrying two cameras and a machete to cut my way through the thick bush over abrupt terrain, along a hillside and at times wading through streams or pools of stagnant rainwater infested with stinging insects and bugs, I had to balance myself in each position to photograph him from different angles. It is not easy to follow a desmochador at work, and I only worked from the ground. No tree climbing…
Omar is a very quiet and shy person. He had never been photographed before and in the end was excited at being followed on the job, in the forest. But It took over a week of approaching him gently, talking, learning and showing respect for his work. Finally, a windy cold front passed over Cuba and its bright blue skies brought everything together to make the story possible.