The wrong wood in our windmills

It’s Friday afternoon. A white man inspects a load of balsa wood planks piled on the banks of a vast river in the Amazon. The sound of a chain saw can be heard in the distance. Down in the river, three Natives are playing1 toddlers screaming with delight with a few stray planks of the wood, which is so light that it floats perfectly.

Timber traders not only brought money but also conflict and crime

‘China’, answers the man, a timber trader, when asked where the timber is going. But he would not say which export company exports the wood. Nor where the wood comes from. That is not surprising: in this remote Amazon region there is no control whatsoever on the often illegal logging by these traders. The only law is that of the dollar bill.

Wood for wind turbines

Copataza, a hamlet of the Achuar Indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is located at the end of the only road to the outside world, which was completed in 2019. This is a blessing to some and a curse to others. Because with the road came the traders, and they brought with them not only money but also conflict and crime.

Shortly after completing the road, the first timber traders from the coastal region of Ecuador arrived. They were looking for balsa, a tropical type of wood used in the production of wind turbines. It is both feather-light and extremely strong, making it the ideal raw material for the blades, which can be up to 100 meters long. The balsa wood is processed in the inside of the blades, in a composite material of carbon or glass fibres, resin and balsa wood.

In 2019, the demand for balsa rose so fast that the existing plantations could no longer cope with the demand

Balsa wood normally comes from plantations in the coastal region of Ecuador, which has been the world’s main exporter of this type of wood for more than half a century. Balsa has many applications, such as in surfboards, model airplanes, musical instruments and for industry, for wind energy.

But in 2019, the demand for balsa rose so fast that the existing plantations could no longer cope with the demand. This was mainly due to China, where the government subsidized companies to build wind farms. But Europe and the United States have also invested heavily in wind energy in recent years. For example, in 2021 the European Union built a record number of wind farms. A development that, in view of the energy transition, will probably continue in the coming years.

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A representative of the sustainable company SERE measures a balsa tree.


Image by:
Ynske Boersma

balsa fever

Initially, traders cut down the balsa trees near the roads, where it is easiest to transport the trees. Then they moved deeper and deeper into the jungle, across the rivers. For two years, these so-called balseros cut down every balsa tree they came across. On the riverbanks, on the islands in the rivers, in the areas of the Indigenous communities. Not a tree remained standing. Some traders even use airplanes to get the wood from the most remote areas.

The traders often work illegally and almost always immorally. They promise mountains of gold to the Indigenous inhabitants of the remote Amazonian communities that inhabit the gigantic forest areas. Or rather: thick packs of dollar bills. But they rarely keep those promises.

This is also the case in Kashap, an Achuar community of three families, a three-hour boat ride from Copataza. “The balsero offered me $12,000 for my riverside trees,” says Gerardo Aij, 38, a tawny, short man. “He gave me an advance of 700 dollars, after which he started cutting. But I never got the rest of the money.” The same stories are told by the inhabitants of the hamlet of Copataza. Due to its location on the road and the river, it transformed into the most important transit port for balsa wood. Between July 2020 and June 2021, some 71,000 balsa trees would have left the area via the ‘port’ of Copataza (no more than a muddy dock on the river), according to the World Wildlife Fund.

And then there were the social problems and crime caused by the logging and all the economic activity around it. “People from the outside brought drugs and alcohol into our community. The young people fell for the temptation and stopped going to school,” says Tito Vargas, responsible for Economy in the Indigenous organization Nacionalidad Achuar de Ecuador (NAE). “Within families, the balsa trade led to divorces,” says Vargas, “because men sold everything without discussing it and then came home penniless, drunk. There have even been murders, all caused by the balsa trade.”

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A balsero offered Gerardo Aij (38) $12,000 for his trees. He received 700.


Image by:
Ynske Boersma

Deforestation

Although the balsa tree itself is not part of primary forests, balsa fever does lead to new deforestation of the rainforest. In the middle of the forest, dozens of hectares of land have been ‘cleaned’ to grow balsa, satellite images of the region above the Napo River show.

Gilberto Nenquimo, president of the Nacionalidad Waorani del Ecuador (NAWE), can confirm this. “I flew over our territory in a small plane and saw deforested areas everywhere, even in the protected area of ​​the uncontacted Waorani.” The Waoranis are Ecuador’s last indigenous people to come into contact with the Western world, only in the 1950s. The 4,000 Waoranis inhabit over 800,000 hectares of rainforest, part of which is a protected nature reserve. A small proportion of them still live without contact with the Western world.

Nenquimo decided to ban the hood in his territory. This not only resulted in threats from rogue balseros, but also protests from community leaders. “’Let’s sell’, they told me. And that is understandable, because people need money. But they do not see that the balseros are taking advantage of them.”

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deforested land 2

The Ecuadorian Amazon is suffering from deforestation.


Image by:
Ynske Boersma

Food crisis

A few years after the start of the rush for balsa wood in the Amazon, the rainforest is on the eve of a new round of felling. Whereas in previous years mainly balsa was felled in the wild, the balsa tree now grows everywhere and nowhere on plantations. From pastoralists to small Indigenous farmers, they all planted balsa trees, hoping to make big profits once the trees are fully grown.

Our green ambitions lead to deforestation and social problems on the other side of the world

That creates new problems for the Achuar. They mainly eat what they grow themselves on their fields within the community. They only get foodstuffs such as rice, oil and salt from the city, an eight-hour journey by river and road. Occasionally they slaughter a chicken or shoot a bird or monkey in the woods. But that forest has less and less to offer due to the arrival of roads, oil companies and loggers.

Copataza leader Julian Illanes is critical of balsa fever. “Balsa is now the number 1 crop of the Achuar. But the trees only yield after three or four years, and in the meantime people neglect their fields. That inevitably leads to a food crisis.”

Difficult to trace

It is a paradoxical situation: our green energy ambitions lead to deforestation and social problems on the other side of the world. About 75 percent of the global balsa market comes from Ecuador. Wind turbine manufacturers are increasingly using synthetic materials for wind turbine blades, but the industry cannot do without tropical wood for the time being.

The global demand for balsa is expected to continue to increase in the coming years. For example, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Denmark have announced that they will significantly expand the number of offshore wind farms before 2050, of which 65 gigawatts must be ready before 2030. By way of comparison: in the past record year 2021, around 100 gigawatts of wind energy were commissioned worldwide.

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lumber merchant in Copataza

A lumber merchant at a batch of balsa beams in Copataza.


Image by:
Ynske Boersma

As long as the demand for balsa remains high, the abuses in Ecuador will continue. Government control of the origin of the wood is flawed and easy to circumvent. “Traders arrange a permit to cut balsa in one place and then get the wood from anywhere,” says Julio Quilumba, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture in the province of Pastaza. “Traceability is a big problem,” he acknowledges.

For example, the largest export company of balsa wood in Ecuador, the Swiss Plantabal/3A Composites, swears that the company has never purchased wood from the Amazon region. But a survey of 19 drivers of balsa wood loads in the Amazon, conducted over 42 days in 2021 in the port of Copataza on behalf of the WWF, shows that they did sell the wood to this company. 11 drivers indicated that they transported the wood to Plantabal.

Ramón Pino, general manager of 3A Composites in the Americas, strongly denies the allegation. “We are the largest and best-known producer of balsa in Ecuador. But the companies that bought the wood (from the Amazon, ed.) are small, without a name. That’s why the drivers say ‘Plantabal’, just like when people say Coca-Cola when they actually mean another brand.” When we present Pino’s rebuttal to two Copataza timber merchants, they nevertheless confirm that they sold most of their balsa to Plantabal.

A longer version of this article appeared on mo.be in October 2022.
This publication was made possible with the support of the Special Journalistic Projects Fund.

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  1. Because of its negative connotation and colonial origins, OneWorld normally avoids using the term “Indigenous”; we usually choose ‘original’. If an author deliberately writes ‘Indigenous’, we enforce it provided it is written with a capital letter. The capital letter shows respect because it represents a collective identity, just as “Canadian” is capitalized. Read more about the word Indigenous here. ↩︎

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