Miguel Lander, 56, tends a fire inside a mound of wood to produce traditional charcoal in Viloria, in northern Spain. The key to the process is a slow burn with minimal oxygen. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Work tools stored in a room. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

There are a handful of people living in the remote valleys of northern Spain who continue to make charcoal the old-fashioned way. The work is hard and labor-intensive, and the only people who buy the charcoal these days are restaurants and private households; most people buy commercially produced charcoal. But a few “charcoal cookers” remain, plying their trade. Associated Press photographer Alvaro Barrientos sought them out to tell their stories.

One of the charcoal cookers Barrientos met was Miquel Lander. According to Barrientos, Lander knows the days of making charcoal the traditional way are coming to an end, but he persists. Barrientos describes the process Lander, and others, goes through to make charcoal: “The carbonization of the wood comes from slowly choking the logs at a constant temperature, keeping most of the oxygen out. In Viloria and other hamlets in the shade of the limestone ranges of Loquiz and Urbasa, that’s achieved by covering pyramids of wood with hay, dry leaves and a layer of insulating soil.

“The fire is lit through a chimney in the center of the pyre. Lander then climbs up on a wooden step to dig air vents in the volcano-like structure in order to keep a steady combustion, which can go on for weeks.”

The pyramids of logs Lander starts with are composed of 1.5 tons of holm oak. Although this might seem like a lot, Barrientos spoke with another charcoal cooker, 78-year-old Emilio Galdeano, who remembers when the output used to be much higher, a time when “charcoal pyres were part of the landscape, and mystery shrouded the charcoal makers who, before vehicles could bring the wood all the way down to the valley, spent weeks or even months up in the mountains tending the firewood piles.”


Charcoal producer Miguel Lander, 56, holds portraits of former charcoal producers in Viloria. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Mertxe García poses for a photograph as she produces traditional charcoal. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Miguel Lander places straw bales on a mound of wood. The straw, covered with a layer of dirt, keeps most of the oxygen out. Otherwise, the wood would be reduced to ash. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Jose Mari Nieva, 60, makes a mound of wood at the start of the process. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Miguel Lander tends the fire inside the pyramid of wood, keeping the combustion slow and the temperature as steady as possible. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Workers extinguish the fire after the wood has burned down to charcoal. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Miguel Lander’s hands. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Former charcoal worker Emiliano Galdeano, 78, shows some old photographs of himself making traditional charcoal.

The mounds of wood may smolder for weeks to produce the charcoal. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Jesus Luis Remiro, center, picks up charcoal with his brother, Salvador, right, and Jose Mari Nieva. (Alvaro Barrientos)

Arkaitz Lander, 22, gather charcoal to put into sacks. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Jesus Luis Remiro, left, picks up charcoal with his brother, Salvador Remiro, and Jose Mari Nieva, center. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

More on In Sight:

Inside the Swedish military presence on Gotland, the most strategic island for defense against Russian aggression

Voices of African photography: Reclaiming the black body

Celebrating 30 years of photojournalism at Visa pour l’Image