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Wind energy fuels black market for balsawood in Ecuador

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Wind energy has boosted the consumption of balsawood in Ecuador and fueled a black market that is endangering the timber industry, in addition to environmental and social impacts on coastal and Amazonian areas.

Ecuadorian loggers have raised their voices following disproportionate growth in 2020 in the consumption of this precious tree, ochroma pyramidale in its scientific designation, and a parallel illegal market has developed because balsa is the main material used in wind turbine blade cores.

The Ministry of Environment intercepted 11 trucks on the border with Peru loaded with this material without the required logging permits. (Photo internet reproduction)

CHINESE DEMAND, THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

“The origin of the problem is on the other side of the world: since 2010, China, with some interruptions, had an ambitious wind power generation plan to reach 2020 with a very significant capacity of this clean energy,” explained Christian Riofrío, executive director of the Ecuadorian Association of Wood Industries (AIMA).

This triggered a growing demand in different years of the past decade that, however, seems to have slowed down in the first months of 2021, he added.

Balsa, which due to its density and specific weight is lighter than cork, is used for the manufacture of wind turbines, a use also driven by its physical-mechanical resistance.

“It plays a key role in the blades,” says Riofrío, who believes that the sharp increase in demand in 2020 is due to delays in the Chinese plan and the acceleration of projects before the end of public subsidies.

According to official data, Ecuador exported US$855 million worth of timber this year, 67% more than in 2019 and almost 3 times more than in 2012. Two thirds of this “forest industry” comes from balsawood, typical of the tropical forests of South America and especially of the Andean country.

THE “WEED” OF THE AMAZON

Cultivation of this tree proliferates in the western coastal provinces, while it grows wild in the eastern Amazon, as a “weed”, say its inhabitants, since its growth is vertiginous, from 3 to 5 years, and easily reforested.

Last year, hundreds of trucks flooded the narrow and often unpaved roads of the provinces of Napo and Pastaza loaded with balsa logs, after becoming a new livelihood for the impoverished indigenous populations.

Easy to cut and transport, each 1.30-1.50 meter log was sold to irregular merchants for between US$8 and US$10 dollars, a veritable fortune in the region.

Indiscriminate logging has also been a cause for concern for environmental NGOs such as Pachamama, which see how it is leaving clearings in the primary forest and impacting other protected species.

“It is being done without any plan to exploit the primary forest,” stated Pablo Balarezo, coordinator of the NGO’s Resilient Economies program, a few months ago.

Among them is the unfair business, since suppliers are paid a price “three or four or five times” lower than the market price, in addition to the fact that it has caused clashes in Kichwa communal lands.

This month the Ministry of Environment intercepted 11 trucks on the border with Peru loaded with this raw material without the required logging permits, seizures that last year reached 96.43 cubic meters of wood in the border province of Morona Santiago alone, of which 71.87 were balsa.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

But the vast majority of illegal logging, the true extent of which is unknown, reaches its destination due to lack of controls, with the aggravating factor that on highways drivers are sometimes intercepted by spontaneous merchants who seize the cargo “with bundles of cash” making the product more expensive, according to Riofrío.

The black market has also caused “collateral damage” to coastal loggers, as trees are often stolen from plantations.

It has also led to the loss of “added value”, which has been the industrialization of the sector for 70 years, and of “image”, as illegal loggers sell raw balsa and on several occasions rotten wood shipments have reached China.

“The main export product is the glued block and rigid and flexible panels,” explains the executive about a chain that generates around 80,000 direct and indirect jobs.

AIMA has therefore launched a proposal to fight indiscriminate logging, establish sustainable practices that benefit the country throughout the value chain, increase plantations so that it is not conducted at the expense of the primary forest, and recover areas affected by “illegality and informality.”

The campaign includes training indigenous communities in orderly planting, as well as a dialogue with China, which consumes 70% of this export, in order to adapt supply to demand.

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