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Addressing the Threat of Uncontrolled Balsa Harvesting in the Sacred Headwaters Region

September 30, 2021 | By The Pachamama Alliance

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Pachamama Alliance is partnered with Indigenous nations in the Sacred Headwaters region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and Peru to protect their land and culture from extractive industries such as oil and mining. Our partnership has helped keep these cultures strong and territories healthy and vibrant for the past twenty-five years.

Just this last year a new threat arrived in this region. It is the uncontrolled and illegal harvesting of balsa wood. Balsa is a super light-weight timber that is native to this region of the Amazon and is seeing growing demand for its use in the construction of wind turbine blades.

Growing Demand for Balsa Wood

Since the 1940s, Ecuador has been a leading exporter of balsa wood to world markets. Between 2019 and 2020, its exports of balsa doubled. Demand could no longer be filled by the traditional balsa plantations on the coast. Demand spread to the Amazon and uncontrolled harvesting is threatening that ecosystem.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the eco-tourism industry—one of the primary sources of income for this region. With the demand for balsa skyrocketing and the ongoing needs for medicines and school supplies, many Indigenous communities turned to balsa traders (balseros) from the outside who came to the region willing to pay cash for harvested balsa trees.

However, the balseros were driving an uncontrolled harvesting of trees, were capturing most of the profit in the trade, and were a disruptive outside influence to the Indigenous cultures. Because balsa is a fast-maturing tree (five years to harvesting size) that grows easily in the rainforest environment, it is economically and culturally feasible to cultivate, manage, and harvest it in a sustainable way.  

Many communities are already growing balsa as a source of immediate income, but with a sustainable management plan, they should be able to count on continuous income that does not come at the expense of the rainforest that they and the world depend on.

Creating a Sustainable Management Plan

To mitigate this high demand, Pachamama Alliance’s sister organization in Ecuador, Fundación Pachamama, is now working with the Achuar and other Indigenous groups as well as with academics and scientists to develop a sustainable management plan for balsa wood production in the Sacred Headwaters region.

The sustainable management plan is a multifaceted approach that considers environmental impact and cultural impact. Some of its unique characteristics will be:

    • It will designate the areas for harvesting, for cultivation, and for protection of balsa trees;
    • A method of certifying the balsa as rainforest sustainably harvested will be established, which should raise demand and the market price of the balsa;
    • It will eliminate middle-men (the role of the balseros) and more value will be captured through delivering and selling rainforest balsa directly to international buyers at shipping ports on the coast;
    • It will develop methods for sharing the surpluses generated by the balsa business with the communities broadly;
    • An ongoing professional governance and administrative structure will be established that will be separate from the frequently changing political leadership of the communities;
    • Constant environmental analysis will be conducted (impacts on plants, animals, soil, the natural evolution of the forest ecosystem) 

If it is successful in the Achuar territory, the plan could serve as a model to be applied in other Indigenous nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and possibly in nearby areas in Peru.

Donate today to support this Indigenous-led management plan for sustainable balsa production in the Amazon rainforest.