Filmmakers to document massive underwater forest as it’s logged

In the early 1960s, the Akosombo Dam was build on the Volta River in Ghana to generate hydropower. The dam was completed in 1965, flooding over 3,000 square miles of land and creating Lake Volta, the largest reservoir in the world.

Under the surface of this lake, massive trees are still rooted in place. These tropical hardwoods are at once valuable and dangerous, and hundreds of people have died in boating collisions with submerged trees. Triton Logging, a Canadian company, struck a deal with the government of Ghana to log the lake, using remotely operated underwater robots. The value of the wood has been estimated at around $3 and $4 million. The work has yet to begin.

Filmmakers Dan Epstein and Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, whom I have been friends with since high school, are setting out to make a feature-length documentary about this submerged forest and the underwater logging. They’re working with Ghanaian Producer Yidana Hameed Korbirbilla and Director of Photography Yoni Goldstein. I caught up with Dan and Jacob on Skype to talk about the project, which they’re fundraising for on Kickstarter.

Jacob learned about the underwater logging project while working as a videographer for an NGO in 2011. “The communities surrounding Lake Volta have been able to become fishing communities to support themselves,” Jacob told me.

The lake also provides an important means of transportation. “These transport boats will be packed to the gills, with 50 or 60 people in a boat that’s meant for 30 or 40,” he said. These boats can ram into barely submerged trees, tearing holes in the bottom or capsizing them, and many people have drowned. Fishermen have died in boating accidents as well. “There have been over 400 people that have died since the creation of the lake from boating accidents.”

Yet it's difficult to say what the environmental impact of removing the dead trees will be. “There’s a huge living ecosystem down there, and it’s one of the most complex things about this whole project,” said Jacob. “Some of the fishermen are concerned about the ecosystem and the habitats of the fish.” Trident Logging, which has worked on similar projects in Canada and South America, conducted a study that found the fish populations won’t be negatively impacted.

Government officials say the project can help meet the demand for hardwood without logging living trees, thereby slowing tropical deforestation. But again, it’s difficult to know how much of an impact on deforestation this will have, in part because underwater logging is new and still quite unusual. “What effect it has on the economy, and what effect it has on the environment, it’s all basically speculation at this point,” said Jacob.

The documentary may fill some of these gaps in our understanding of this vast underwater forest. The team plans to film below the water's surface before the logging begins, possibly by scuba diving in the lake. “No one has really documented the ecosystem underwater in this lake,” said Jacob.

The documentary, called “The Work at Lake Volta,” also aims to explore the idea of development. The logging project raises many questions about resource use, the human impact on the environment, and globalization. “The big question is: what is development?” said Dan. “The goal is to give people a more nuanced understanding, and question assumptions about development and its priorities.”

Tags: Documentaries | Ghana

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