democraciaAbierta: Feature

The Amazonian Indigenous communities fighting 'balsa wood fever' and COVID

The extraction of balsa wood is a plague spreading through the Ecuadorian Amazon, and loggers have brought the pandemic to isolated communities

Andrés Tapia Bryan Garcés Lenin Montahuano
19 March 2021, 12.00am
Balsa wood stacked high
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Pablo Albarenga

While the whole world was looking the other way amid the COVID-19 pandemic, extractive companies have increased their exploitation of Indigenous territories in the Amazon.

In Ecuador, for example, the indiscriminate logging of balsa wood has begun, exerting great pressure on the middle and lower basin of the Pastaza river in the territory of the Achuar nationality, as well as that of other nationalities, such as the Kichwa, Shuar and Waorani. The situation highlights the disastrous extent of the impacts of extractivism in the Amazon region.

What’s more, amid a global health emergency, the effects on the local population are even greater. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, the so-called ‘balsa fever’, which has seen the arrival of hundreds of loggers seeking to fell this precious Amazonian wood, became the fatal focus of the coronavirus contagion in Amazonian Indigenous communities that would otherwise have been cut off from the world.

There is much international demand for balsa wood, which is both light and very resistant – and is used to manufacture the blades of wind power generators in Europe and China. Together with my colleagues, Bryan Garces and Lenin Montahuano and the communication team of Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), ‘Lanceros Digitales’, we decided to document the growing impact of the balsa fever through visits to the territory, particularly to that of the Achuar nationality.

We entered the territory through the Chico Copataza road. On the way, we saw at least five trucks of foreign workers carrying wood. At the request of the Achuar leader, we began to keep an audiovisual record of everything that was happening in the territory: trucks loading and unloading wood, boats transporting the wood, people entering and leaving.

Canoeing along the Pastaza River, we saw how dozens of people were stationed on each of the islands that exist along this great river. They were concentrated in camps of about 2km2 on the banks of the river, ready to cut down the largest balsa trees. But this was only the beginning of the balsa fever, the situation would become more complicated later.

"There is no authorization to take balsa wood out of our territory, I have not given that permission, gentlemen," affirmed Tiyua Uyunkar, president of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador, who accompanied us on our tour, while observing the effervescence of balsa extraction in the grassroots communities.

"Logging must stop immediately because it puts the conservation of our riverbanks at risk and this can then unleash floods that affect our communities. We will hold assemblies with the presidents of the associations and communities because this is community territory and the people must make decisions," said Uyunkar, showing visible concern.

In this and other tours, up to 15 illegal camps established on the islands of the Pastaza River were visited in the Achuar territory alone. We know that in other areas and territories, such as Kichwa and Waorani, balsa fever has also skyrocketed and similar exploitation points are found along the different hydrographic basins.

But in addition to the indiscriminate logging of this valuable wood, other phenomena derived from extractive activities have been observed in the communities. With the loggers’ arrival, prostitution, alcoholism and social disintegration have proliferated.

Combating balsa fever

Sharamentsa, located in the Achuar territory of the lower Pastaza, is a model ecological community that has decided to resist the balsa fever. Instead of felling the trees, the community will maintain the permanent protection of the islands and the animals that inhabit them, as they are part of the ecological balance of the area. In addition, the community has decided to carry out different economic alternatives to the balsa, such as food production, education and tourism.

Nantu Canelos, a young Indigenous leader from Sharamentsa, told us about the activities that, together with several community members, they are developing as an alternative to protect this biodiverse corner of the Amazon rainforest.

"Today we have carried out an important activity for our community, we have counted balsa trees covering the area of the islands of our territory that are permanently being defended by the Achuar Sharamentsa community,” Canelos said.

“When we started the counting, we found that the islands are the refuge of many different birds and animals. They are breeding grounds for wildlife. We found different animal tracks such as jaguar, deer, capybaras and also birds of different species such as herons, parrots and macaws. With this, I mean that we are not only in the fight for the survival of these animals, but that this biodiversity is what makes the jungle able to fulfil the function of sowing, dispersion of seeds and thus feeds the life reproduction cycle."

Rainbow over Sharamentsa, in Achuar Territory
Rainbow over Sharamentsa, in Achuar Territory | Francesc Badia i Dalmases

During the days we spent there, the president of the community called an assembly to make decisions to confront the unfolding balsa crisis.

First, in the early hours of the morning, the community gathered for the traditional, energizing guayasa drink, ‘Wais umamu’, to keep their spirits strong during the workday. Hours later, delegates from the different surrounding communities gathered at the Sharamentsa community hut. Sitting on wooden benches in the shape of animals, they started the event with the ancestral greeting, extending their spears in front of each other, while exchanging vigorous phrases in their native language.

The assembly began an intense debate on the need to preserve the forest, on which the families of the communities have historically depended as a source of life and subsistence. They deeply understood that indiscriminate exploitation would endanger the survival of current and future generations.

After serious deliberation, the communities resolved to suspend the extraction of balsa in their territory. Their spokespersons made the resolutions known through written communiqués signed by the community authorities. They were also disseminated through the audiovisual platforms of our CONFENIAE communications team, which was invited to document and report this and subsequent events in order to make them visible to national and international public opinion.

The Achuar territory's ecosystem is immensely rich and fragile. Balsa extraction could ruin its balance, which has been preserved for thousands of years

"We declare the prohibition of balsa extraction in the entire territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador to protect the future of our generations. The jungle is our source of life and it is our duty to protect it by not giving way to excessive logging and extractivism that has only left problems and threats in the Amazon," said the highest Achuar representative.

The ecosystem of the Achuar territory in the lower Pastaza river is as immensely rich as it is fragile. The aggression caused by the balsa fever could ruin the ecosystem's balance, which has been preserved for thousands of years. The prohibition of extraction is a decisive step in the conservation of the territory and it is essential that the authorities respect Indigenous sovereignty and collaborate with all the means at their disposal to stop this fever that could certainly be more lethal than the pandemic itself.


This story is part of our ‘Flares from the Amazon’ series, produced in the Amazon basin by DemocraciaAbierta. In Ecuador, the CONFENIAE team participated together with Indigenous journalists from Lanceros Digitales. The series is supported by the Pulitzer Center's Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund. We appreciate the testimonies and graphic material provided by members of the Achuar communities portrayed in this story, who remain isolated due to COVID-19.

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