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  • João Stacishin de Queiroz

Wind power generation fosters deforestation in Ecuador’s Chocó

João Stacishin de Queiroz

Conservationist, Mompiche, Ecuador


The dilemma: green energy and deforestation


Michael Moore in his documentary “Planet of the Humans” sounded the alarm: green energy is not as green as it may seem to consumers and voters in wealthy countries. This is not news to many of us residing in places from where the raw material for the manufacture of “green/alternative energy” technologies come from. The problem, made accessible and understandable to the world by Mr. Moore, is and has been ignored by decision makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and the public in general. Why?


Perhaps questioning “green” energy is not politically, economically, or personally rewarding. Politically, “green energy" has gained in popularity on the wake of a massive media onslaught promoting the economic and ecologic virtues of alternative sources of energy, while raising public awareness about the very real negative impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and societies. Economically, energy companies and financial institutions stand to benefit handsomely from investments in renewable energy (https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-renewable-energy-supermajors/). For example, the recently launched European Green Deal estimates that at least 260 billion euros will have to be spent yearly in alternative energies if Europe is to meet its 2030 carbon emissions targets. At the individual level, innocent consumers feel better, their conscience assuaged by the belief that by consuming alternative energies they reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the serious and irreversible negative social and environmental impacts of alternative energies are largely ignored and purposely swept under the rug.


How wind power constitutes a threat to the Chocó and other tropical forests.


The balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidalis) is used in the manufacture of wind-turbine propeller cores. Each 100-meter propeller blade uses 150 cubic meters of balsa wood. In a recent article, The Economist (https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2021/01/30/the-wind-power-boom-set-off-a-scramble-for-balsa-wood-in-ecuador) described the

The Chocó - a biodiversity hotspot

impact of balsa harvesting on indigenous territories in Ecuador’s Amazon region. Their focus was on global markets, supply and demand, and associated forest degradation and social disruptions these market pressures create. Herein I describe the process through which the demand for wind power is a contributor to the deforestation of the last patches of humid tropical forests, once dominant along the coast of northwestern Ecuador where I live.

Balsa (Ochroma pyramidalis) a fast growing early successional species

The logic for balsa-related deforestation

Balsa is an early colonizer, meaning that once a site is deforested and subsequently abandoned this tree species is one of the first to occupy the deforested patch. Thousands of minute seeds immersed in loose cotton-like puffs, are blown by the wind over large distances. If it lands in an open space with adequate sunshine and drainage the seeds germinate and balsa trees become an important component of early successional vegetation. Within five years they are ready for harvest. If left to follow its normal ecological cycle, the balsa begins to rot from the inside when it reaches about 10 years, creating ideal conditions for the nesting and home for an unknown number of species, many of them birds. Here where I live parakeets, toucans and aracaris (a small type of toucan) commonly use old balsa trees to nest and shelter.

It so follows that the easiest and cheapest way to produce balsa is to clear-cut mature secondary or primary forests, burn it, sit back and wait five to six years until the trees attain the appropriate size to harvest. The immediate cost to the individual forest owner is minimal: a few days of labor. Hence, in light of current and potential future demand for balsa and reduced alternatives landowners, the majority of whom are non-indigenous, cut the forest down to promote the establishment of balsa. This “slash-and-sit-back” approach to balsa production contrasts with plantations established in old pastures. In this later case, the trees have to be sown and cared for until it achieves a couple of meters or so of height. It takes more money and more effort than simply cutting down the forest and waiting five years to reap the economic benefits.

Young balsa trees growing on a recently (1 year) cleared patch of mature forest

The results of this logic is visible everywhere here in the Chocó of Ecuador. Forest patches are being cut down every day. Add to that the expansion of shrimp aquaculture and oil palm https://www.thehowler.space/post/shrimp-markets-privatization-and-the-collapse-of-a-coastal-town-in-ecuador) plantations to balsa-related deforestation, and the future of the Chocó as a viable ecosystem is grim.

In summary, land owners and managers in the Chocó are incentivized to convert mature forests into early successional balsa-rich vegetation patches because standing mature forests generate reduced economic benefits to them and balsa offers an opportunity to generate income with moderate effort and investment. This is leading to widespread green energy-driven deforestation. What can be done about it? We will address this question in a longer forthcoming piece.



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