Notes from the field

Issue

No planter can deny sharing in our collective “what good is this job?” cynicism. We’ve all taken pleasure in the rants and criticisms, minimizing our status to ditch digging labourers.  And let’s face it, some aspects can leave you broken and bound to the quick-money, seasonal lifestyle. But after this last winter, I have a new appreciation for the hard and soft skills I’ve earned from my time in the bush.

After over a dozen years planting trees across BC and Alberta, the last of which were spent running planting camps as a supervisor, I had the opportunity to explore this undervalued and varied skill-set in an unusual, yet paralleled, context. For 5 months this past winter, I worked as a logistician with Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders, in a town called Bunia, the capital of the North Eastern Province Oriental of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bunia hosts MSF Swiss’ largest coordination base, which supports a number field projects and hospitals, established in response to conflicts, malnutrition and epidemics. The base has 140 full time national staff and a revolving door of 25-40 expats from around the world. My role as the Log Base (the charming abbreviation of logistician) of Bunia was basically everything involved in running the Base. To break it down, my logistical team was 42 guards, 11 drivers, 5 radio operators, 4 water sanitation techs, 2 mechanics, 2 electricians, 1 carpenter, 2 supply managers and an assistant. The Logs’ responsibility is to manage the logistical team and all the systems that keep operations running. The working environment is fast paced, stressful and involves dozens of “vibrant” (and often conflicting) personalities from across the world; it was an amazing challenge. To say I was great at the job right off the bat would be a stretch of the imagination, but I felt time and again that I had an advantage given my experience supervising tree planting camps. It turns out being a Log draws a surprising number of parallels with the lifestyle and management skills learned in the planting world.

So, what do you learn from planting? Well, some truly “unique” stuff-  like how to pull/dig/curse a stuck truck out of a soft shoulder or how to strategically duct tape scabby fingers and open wounds, or nurse a bag rash, among a wealth of other dirt-bag tricks that could be considered only relevant to the industry. But what is rarely acknowledged is the soft skills you gain working in this often under-valued, and                 over-dramatized sub culture. Planters live and work in a tight community, cooperatively and efficiently. We are responsible for one another, day after day, we forge bonds and become adept at resolving interpersonal conflicts and tensions. We work in remote and harsh environments that challenge us both mentally and physically and we become incredibly resourceful and adaptable to ever changing conditions, unforeseen problems and even crisis.

When managing a planting camp, you live and breathe this job. You need to find a way to make it work right then and there. You live, eat, work and party with your crew. There’s no going home at 5pm to decompress and disconnect.  As a manager, the pressure is on. You have a mind map of every truck and planter and block and tree and how they all fit together in organized chaos. Your decision making has to be confident, quick and must maintain balance between conflicting interests and priorities. This less tangible yet critical attribute of supervising became an apparent advantage during the ongoing security incidents in Bunia, when I was responsible for retrieving staff and expats from town during conflict. The ability to work through the conflicting needs and complex logistics of these situations, while tracking movements and communicating with the individuals, felt like exercising a familiar muscle in a different world. 

I am but one of many planter-turned-MSF-ers who have reflected on the planting experience and recognized how well skills translate between these professions. One of MSFs Holland’s most senior logisticians and Heads of Mission, Ivan Gayton, transitioned from tree planting supervision to logistics about 10 years ago. Ivan wrote an article titled ‘The mysterious Nexus of tree planting and Humanitarian logistics’ which covers the sheer technical similarities such as remote camp logistics- generators, tents, water supply and sanitation, radio communication, cold chain (whether it be vaccines or trees), electricity, transport, risk management and security. In addition to the clear parallels of the technical and managerial skills in the logistics department, Ivan points out that MSF recruiters have long since identified Canadian tree planters to have higher success rates on Mission. What does this mean? A doctor, nurse, administrator or logistician with a planting background has a lower chance of dropping out then any other professional demographic from which they hire. This correlation speaks directly to the strength of character with respect to the cooperation, community, and endurance needed to thrive in a planting camp and in turn a field mission. 

 

MSF team enjoy Christmas Dinner together at the Bon Marché Hospital in Bunia  

So planters- give yourself some credit for being able to push yourself both physically and mentally, and for the ability to cooperatively and supportively work and live in an intricate hive of personalities. To step outside your comfort zone into uncertain and remote conditions without the luxuries and comforts of home for months on end. Not everyone can cut it. And the same goes for crewbosses, tree runners and supervisors, for navigating the logistics and responsibility of running crews. This hard knock school of management has no doubt left you with a set of hard and soft skills applicable to many interesting and dynamic jobs out there – humanitarian logistics to name just one.

Dawn Brinkman has been planting trees or supervising in BC and Alberta for 13 years. She writes this from camp in 100 Mile BC where she is supervising a contract for Brinkman and Associates. Dawn can be reached at dawn_brinkman@brinkman.ca 

Established in 1971,Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  is one of the world's leading independent international medical relief organizations, working in around 80 countries worldwide and with operational centres and national offices in 19 countries. For more information, check out their website at www.msf.ca.

 

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