Mining for Gold to Preserve Tropical Forests- The Entrepreneurial Story of Mr. Garbage Wood



After completing his college degree, in 1997 Tim O’Brien found himself on the island of Lombok in Indonesia.  Although he was struck by the beauty of the region, O’Brien noticed the locals destructing several old masts built with beautiful, solid wood and replacing them with concrete. The beautiful ebony and teak columns were, strangely, either been thrown away or given to locals to burn as fuel.


O’Brien was struck by the amount of high-quality wood which was being wasted. Though he wasn’t sure what he could do with the columns, around 18 inches in diameter and 5 inches tall, in typical entrepreneurial fashion he took action; he immediately rented a warehouse and started buying the excess wood off the locals.


Not long after, faced with growing piles of wood and still little clarity as to where his venture was headed, O’Brien began assembling local carpenters to identify his options. He thought he could perhaps turn what he saw as valuable wood into artifacts or furniture for resale.


Despite his strong intentions, after one month of working with the local carpenters they had all quit.  To them, it was insulting to use their craftsmanship on what they perceived as ‘garbage’ wood. When the story spread, O’Brien began to be ironically teased as ‘Pak Kayu Saampah’ or Mr. Garbage Wood.


Despite this growing infamous reputation and continual battle to prove the woods value to the local craftsmen, O’Brien also began to face other challenges with his venture.


Because a good portion of the salvaged wood did not have standard material integrity, fitting different species to create aesthetic, saleable, furniture took a lot of resources and creativity. In addition, some woods, like mango and durian, were more prone to bugs when mixed with other wood species; industry-standard fumigation proved insufficient to make the wood bug resistant.


Putting his entrepreneurial skills to work, O’Brien and his team created customized insecticides that were effective, easy and safe to work with. Having overcome with what felt like an insurmountable challenge, O’Brien knew he had a high quality product – and thus -Tropical Salvage was born.


With a clear vision for the business in mind, O’Brien was concerned about his wood supply; would it be enough on which to grow a viable business?


As far as he could tell, several years of tectonic and volcanic activity had uprooted trees which got swept away in the swollen tide of the rainy season and got deposited down river. In addition to this, illegal logging from years back also resulted in several trees being found in the bottom of the river.


But beyond even this abundance, O’Brien remained concerned about his ability to build Tropical Salvage and ensure its sustainability.It was then he thought of his travels during the rainy seasons, where he frequently came across wooden trunks sticking out from the ground right in the middle of rice farms. Curious on how the trunks got there, he decided to investigate. It’s then that O’Brien found out about bogs and the existence of entombed wood which was a result of volcanic eruptions that occurred hundreds of years ago.


Astounding and devastating expressions of geological change occurred in an abrupt moment, relegating enduring giant trees of the tropical forest to a strange, hidden fate. The trees, many of them already ancient above the ground, became more ancient below the ground, entombed in bogs.


Because oxygen was unable to penetrate the dense and wet bog, the trees not only remained intact but ingrained more strength and charisma from the minerals absorbed from the bog. To Tim O’Brien looking to establish his business and have a positive impact on tropical forests, these bogs were like gold.


Today, after ten years, a steady stream of North American and European sales and 80 local employees, O’Brien remains strongly motivated by his original commitment to conservation that inspired Tropical Salvage.


With funds from his business, O’Brien partnered with Jepara Forest Conservancy to implement a conservation, education and reforestation project in Indonesia. The conservancy has already begun to reforest the land with native species representing the areas indigenous forests. Impressive, to date about 500 trees have been planted, representing 35 species.


O’Brien believes that although more people are becoming aware of the intense necessity for tropical forest conservation, that additional awareness is urgently needed.


This is why he recently put forth Tropical Salvage for the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge – a challenge that is working to identify the best for-profit solutions having a positive impact on tropical forest biodiversity in any of the 75 tropical forest-rich countries around the world.


“Actions like the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge can do wonders in generating awareness about serving the local communities that make a viable business model possible”, O’Brien says.


As a Challenge applicant, this is what O’Brien is most excited about. His work with Tropical Salvage has saved hundreds – maybe even thousands – of trees and he knows that there is benefit in helping ensure other entrepreneurs also create commercially viable businesses to preserve tropical forests.


“I choose to wake up every day with a lot of hope for the future of our tropical forest and fortify it with action,” says O’Brien.


Interested in Tropical Salvage or other ennovent challenges for innovative solutions?


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