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Rumble in the jungle

The Royal Engineers has become renowned in recent years for its role in rebuilding the war-torn Balkans.

But what could a squadron possibly be doing in the jungles of Belize?

Mark Hansford went to find out.

Nestling between Mexico and Guatemala on the shores of the Caribbean, the former British colony of Belize is a country with a reputation for relaxation. But anyone thinking construction in such an apparently welcoming environment should be warned. This is a tropical paradise with a bite.

Just ask 20 Field Squadron of the Royal Engineers. It is reaching the end of a three month battle against Belize's climate, geography and culture to complete three very different construction projects dead on time.

In the military there is no such thing as a delay.

The British Army has a long tradition in the former colony, dating back to the days when it fought alongside the local forces to keep out the invading Guatemalans. Since then Belize has gained independence and its own defence force. The British Army's permanent operational presence has all but gone.

However, in the mid 1990s the Royal Engineers identified Belize as the ideal place to hone its construction skills without the pressures of warfare. It also enables it to fly the British flag for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

For the last six years various squadrons have spent three months there in the short window between the end of the wet season and beginning of the hurricane season. They have used this time to work on a number of community, military and commercial construction projects.

This year is the turn of 20 Field Squadron from Maidstone in Kent. It has been given the task of building two schools, a new hangar in the Army's Price Barracks and, unusually, a jungle research station high in the southern Maya Mountains.

The three projects may be small by UK standards, but there are still plenty of challenges to overcome, says Officer Commanding Major Tyrone Urch 'It's not the Heathrow Express, but it's still a great challenge and fantastic achievement', he says.

Urch is well qualified to judge, having spent 12 months on the Heathrow Express project while seconded to Balfour Beatty as part of his training towards chartered status.

Each project poses individual challenges, but the biggest is in the logistics of getting to the sites in the first place.

'The terrain, the road conditions and distances involved make command and control particularly difficult, ' explains Urch.

'A round trip to all three sites is a journey of approximately 950km and has serious implications.'

The main engineering challenge has come from a decision to use local materials. At best the suppliers have provided poor quality materials. At worst they been unable to provide them at all.

All three jobs have been affected by this problem, but none more so than the schools projects in Sartenja and Patchchacan.

Sartenja sits on the north Belize coast, a tortuous hour and a half drive along dirt tracks from the nearest large town, Orange Walk. Patchchacan lies 30km to the west, across the Bahia Chetumal and another arduous two hour trip from Sartenja.

At Sartenja primary school the brief is to rebuild a toilet block, construct an 'attap' - the local term for an assembly shelter - prepare a sports area and completely overhaul the school's decrepit and dangerous electrical system.

In Patchchacan the job was to construct additional classroom space and, again, overhaul the school's run-down electrics.

Sartenja was chosen as project headquarters. Before any work could begin, a tented village, complete with dining facilities and showers with hot and cold water, needed to be constructed for the troops.

'We are a highly professional, flexible and self contained construction force, ' explains Urch.

The facility took five men just six days to construct. Classroom construction and rewiring work were to prove rather more problematic.

'We're dealing with a country that has significantly different construction standards, ' says Urch. 'The materials can be shocking, and some of the suppliers try it on at every opportunity.'

There is no better example than the materials supplied to the Sartenja site.

Despite pre-ordering the timber from a major supplier several months in advance, 25% of the timber had to be rejected out of hand as unusable.

Team leader and troop commander Lieutenant Simon Doyle cited the timber columns as a typical example: 'We foolishly assumed that a 200mm column would be 200mm at both ends, ' he says. 'Instead they tapered out to 300mm.'

The beams are a bigger problem. With the supplier unable to provide the requested 10m beams, he has instead produced the equivalent length in 5m beams.

'We dealt with a major supplier and still got inferior quality resources, ' says Doyle. 'It got to the stage where we were handing everything back and waiting four weeks for replacements.'

Drastic action was called for.

'In the end it was a trade-off between time and quality, ' he explains. 'We went to a woodmill, and in 30 minutes we got our timber. It's still bent, but at least bent in one plane.'

Similar anguish was faced over the 'ready-mixed' concrete ordered for the attap's pad foundations. The team was soon to discover that in Belize ready mixed actually means 'delivered to site and then mixed'.

'This has the advantage that you can monitor the mixing yourself, but has the disadvantage of giving the supplier another opportunity to try to stitch you up, ' explains Doyle.

He had two heated disputes with ready mix suppliers.

'In 38infinityC heat the concrete goes off in 30 minutes, so the mixer running out of water half way through pouring is a bit of a problem, ' he says.

There was to be one further twist. In a bid to finish the Patchchacan project ahead of schedule, and in time for a visit from Princess Anne, 10 men were temporarily seconded away from Sartenja. This cost further delays.

The team is now working flat out to recover lost time, with the Patchchacan team pulled in to assist.

With two weeks to go and the attap a mere skeleton, the squadron is battling again, but on this occasion only time is the enemy.

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