HomeNewsTimber Mafias at Ecuador’s Borders Cash in on Balsa Boom
NEWS

Timber Mafias at Ecuador’s Borders Cash in on Balsa Boom

ECUADOR / 1 JUN 2021 BY KATIE JONES AND MARÍA FERNANDA RAMÍREZ EN

Timber mafias operating along Ecuador’s borders with Peru and Colombia have been profiting from the thriving demand for balsa wood.

The quantity of illegally sourced balsa wood seized in Ecuador increased from 700 cubic meters in 2019 to 1,973 cubic meters in 2020, a jump of more than 180 percent, according to Primicias, which had access to data from the nation's Ministry of Environment (Ministerio del Ambiente y Agua).

Primicias also reported that mafias dedicated to trafficking balsa have been operating at Ecuador's borders with Peru and Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Timber Mafias – Preying on Latin America’s Forests

Last month, Juan Carlos García, an ecologist and project consultant at the Pachamama Foundation (Fundación Pachamama), a non-governmental organization seeking to protect Ecuador's Amazon region from the expansion of extractive industries, told Expreso that the eastern Pastaza River that connects Ecuador and Peru had been transformed into a "highway for balsa cut down illegally."

While a balsa tree typically sold for five dollars in 2019, it could be priced as high as $45 in 2020, García added.

Balsa is a light, fast-growing wood that can be chopped down just three to five years after a tree is planted. It is used to make musical instruments, furniture, model aircraft and boats, as well as surfboards. Since 2019, the wood has been increasingly used to manufacture wind turbine blades, with international transitions to clean energy fueling its export out of Ecuador.

Balsa chopped down in Ecuador's border regions has been reaching wind farms in China and the United States. Last year, clean energy companies in both countries rushed to install turbines using the lightweight wood to take advantage of tax credits and government subsidies that were set to expire. However, the United States extended the subsidies for another year at the end of December.

With a global shortage and high demand, legal balsa exports have doubled between 2019 and 2020, El Comercio reported, citing Christian Riofrío, the executive director of Ecuador's Wood Industry Association (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Industriales de la Madera - Aima).

A black market for the wood has boomed alongside its legal trade as state controls to combat environmental crimes like illegal logging have been pared back during the pandemic in Ecuador.

InSight Crime Analysis

Timber mafias operating along Ecuador's borders are using tried-and-tested methods to meet the thriving demand for balsa.

Timber traffickers in the nation have long sought out expensive hardwoods used to construct furniture, like mahogany and cedar. But these groups have broadened their focus to balsa.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Deforestation Spurred by Illegal Logging

Balsa is often illegally cut down in forests across Ecuador and Colombia.

Loggers in Ecuador invade protected reserves to harvest balsa, particularly the territory belonging to the Indigenous Waorani people living along the Curaray River in Ecuador's eastern Amazon region. In other cases, loggers work with communities to obtain legal harvesting permits from them.

Meanwhile, balsa chopped down in the Colombian department of Putumayo reaches Ecuador via the San Miguel International Bridge. There, police and military officials charge a fee to allow illicit loads to pass, a logger based in Colombia’s Amazon region told InSight Crime. Protected wood species are also cut down to make way for the growing of balsa trees, according to César Rey, an expert in Colombia’s forestry sector.

Whether sourced from Colombia or Ecuador, the wood is transported onward via river or road to neighboring Peru. It may be mixed in with legal shipments on the way, or it may be laundered through sawmills once it has been smuggled into Peru before legal export. Journalist Milagros Aguirre Andrade, who wrote a book on Ecuador’s timber trade, told InSight Crime that transporters pay police and military officials bribes to move the illegal timber across the Ecuador-Peru border as well.

While illegally sourced balsa was exported in record numbers from both Ecuador and Peru in 2020, Rofrío, Ecuador's wood industry expert, said he does not expect international markets to reach the same level of demand for balsa in 2021. However, much damage has already been done.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME / 20 FEB 2014

Authorities in Nicaragua seized over 1,400 cubic meters of timber harvested illegally from a northern forest reserve in 2013 --…

BRAZIL / 9 JAN 2012

Peruvian groups carry out illegal logging in Brazil before transporting the wood along tributaries of the Amazon into Peru, unhindered…

ECUADOR / 25 FEB 2021

Los Choneros is one of Ecuador’s most prominent criminal groups, which first emerged in the late 1990s as a drug…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…

THE ORGANIZATION

Exploring Climate Change and Organized Crime

10 SEP 2021

In July, InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley moderated a panel for the Climate Reality Project's regional series of workshops for young climate activists in the Americas. The week-long event…

THE ORGANIZATION

Gearing Up a New Class of Interns

3 SEP 2021

InSight Crime is readying its newest class of interns – from universities in Europe and the Americas – to begin investigative work on a number of high-impact projects. For the…

THE ORGANIZATION

Tracking Environmental Crime in the Amazon

27 AUG 2021

Next week, InSight Crime launches an investigation – conducted with Brazilian think-tank the Igarapé Institute – on the sophisticated organized crime structures and armed groups that…