The wind-power boom set off a scramble for balsa wood in Ecuador

The wind-power boom set off a scramble for balsa wood in Ecuador

It has had unintended consequences


In late 2019 loggers started arriving in Ewegono, a village of nine indigenous Waorani families on the Curaray river in the Ecuadorean Amazon. They were looking for balsa, a fast-growing species of tree whose wood is used in blades for wind-power turbines. There was a global shortage. At first, villagers “grabbed chainsaws, axes and machetes to cut it down”, says Saúl Nihua, Ewegono’s leader. The pay could be $150 a day, a fortune in a region where most people have no jobs.

Soon the harvest became a free-for-all. Some loggers got permits with the help of the Waorani, but others forged them and invaded the indigenous reserve. Many took truckloads of wood without paying their workers. People from less remote places cut all the balsa they could find, stacking it along the road to Arajuno, the nearest town, says Mr Nihua. Buyers in trucks paid as little as $1.50 per tree. Uncontrolled logging degraded the forest. “They’ve killed off vegetation tremendously…without respecting legal limits,” says Mr Nihua, who partly blames himself. He encouraged his fellow Waorani to earn money from the coveted timber. The influx of cash and liquor fuelled family violence.