The chainsaw roars, and one by one, the trees come crashing down.
Luis Andi*, his brother Jorge and their wives are clearing a small patch of forest in the province of Orellana, in Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon. This time, the indigenous Kichwas’ main purpose is to prepare the land for agriculture – so that Jorge, a skinny youth in his early 20s, can support his young family.
“If you don’t have grass, you can’t feed animals to feed yourself. That’s the way it is. You have to cut down trees to plant crops,” Andi said.
But the wood won’t go to waste. Andi will also use the chainsaw to carefully carve the larger trees into planks. Then he’ll sell them to the region’s thriving timber market.
Elena Mejia, a researcher for the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), watches from a safe distance as each tree falls to the forest floor and the circle of sky above expands. She has trekked several kilometres into the jungle with the family to learn exactly how the process works.
“We wanted to know what the supply is, how the demand works, who buys, what are volumes of timber extracted, and how regulations and forest governance influences the relationships between different actors – whether formal or informal,” she said.
Mejia and a team of scientists have spent months in Ecuador’s Amazonian provinces of Orellana and Napo, conducting interviews with key market actors – producers, transporters, chainsaw operators, and intermediaries – as well as surveys of nearly 250 smallholders in 21 indigenous and colonist communities.
Using this information, as well as the government’s official statistics on legal flows of timber, they’ve produced an extensive report on the state of Ecuador’s domestic timber market, the strategies used by communities to manage their forests and make a living, and how the benefits obtained are distributed.
The new paper is part of the Pro-Formal project, which is examining the dynamics of the domestic timber markets in five countries – Indonesia, Cameroon, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ecuador.
The information is important in the context of new regulations imposed by the European Union under the umbrella of the FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan, which aims to exclude illegal timber from its markets and promote demand for timber that complies with national regulations for sustainable forest management.
“Under the plan, countries are encouraged to sign Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with the EU, which require that all timber exported to the EU be of legal origin; many countries have also included provisions on the legalisation of domestic timber markets. In many cases this is no small feat in countries with widespread informal markets and inadequate legal frameworks.”
Ecuador, though, is a special case, says CIFOR Senior Scientist Pablo Pacheco, who leads the Pro-Formal project in Ecuador.
Firstly, he says, the demand for native timber from the country’s Amazon forests is mainly domestic, rather than export based. Secondly, the government has made a lot of efforts to improve forest governance and implement environmental laws in recent years.
Ecuador has in fact decided not to continue conversation with the EU with regard to the implementation of a FLEGT-VPA in the country.
Despite this, Pacheco says, the country’s experience provides useful lessons for other nations to improve their forests governance and monitor illegal logging.
“Ecuador has been making important attempts to put all the different pieces of forest governance together; in terms of adjusting the forestry regulations, putting in place a system of timber monitoring, and also providing some incentives for smallholders doing forest management,” he said.
“So we are trying to understand how these efforts have been working, what hasn’t worked so well, and what lessons we can bring from Ecuador to other countries as well.”
The study found that timber is an important part of the survival strategies of smallholders.
In some communities, it constituted up to 50 per cent of families’ income, although this varied from province to province and between indigenous and colonist villages.
In Orellana, where Luis Andi lives, the sale of timber made up, on average, 22 percent of the total income of Kichwa communities like Andi’s; but 10 percent of the income of colonist ones. In Napo, those numbers were almost reversed, with indigenous communities relying less on timber than colonists.
However, the volumes of timber extracted by these communities are not large. In Napo between August 2011 and September 2012, families working informally on average sold 10 cubic metres of wood each (around 12 trees, although this depends on the tree species.)
And how much they do extract depends on external factors: whether they have agricultural alternatives, if they can get work outside the community, if a family member is sick, how many children need school materials.
“You could say it functions as the safety-net for people – they respond to abrupt changes by using the forest for extra income,” Mejia says.
And they are not making much money from logging, either. The study found that despite wide fluctuations in the price of timber downstream, the communities continue to receive the same low prices for their wood.
Part of the study weighed up the costs and benefits of the different timber harvesting strategies used by small producers.
The researchers found that they made the most profit when they had a legal management plan, and participated in the harvesting and chainsawing of good-quality tree species themselves, selling the timber as already-cut planks.
Hiring someone else to do the chainsawing, or selling the standing trees to an intermediary who organises the whole process, resulted in a much lower profit for the smallholder.
However, this ideal situation isn’t possible for many families. While Luis Andi’s wife and brother help him in the forest for free, other men have to hire assistants. Those who are too old or injured, or don’t own chainsaws, have to outsource the work.
And even if ultimately, having the right paperwork helps you get a bigger profit – for many, there are institutional barriers to getting a management plan to cut timber.
Barriers to legality
Ecuador’s government has made a number of efforts to simplify the process and to try to bring small-scale loggers into the formal market.
“Forest users have seen that it is possible to harvest timber legally, and that it can be beneficial for them to be part of the system,” says Tania Villegas from Ecuador’s Environment Ministry (at the time of the interview with Forests News in April 2013.)
She says 75,000 people working in the forestry industry are now registered online in the government’s Sistema de Administración Forestal (Forestry Administration System.)
“It’s been complicated, and has taken us three or four years, but now the system covers the whole country,” she said. “It’s been most difficult with small farmers who produce smaller quantities of wood, but they are now entering the system.”
CIFOR’s study has revealed that most smallholders that harvest timber do not do so under a legal management plan. Around 70 percent of those surveyed in both Napo and Orellana said they cut timber informally between August 2011 and September 2012.
Some conservation groups – including Alejandro Suarez, the director of Estación Biológica Jatun Sacha, a Napo nature and research reserve – believe this is because the existing laws aren’t sufficiently enforced.
“We already have very good laws. But they fail in the implementation,” he said.
“Sometimes it seems like they [the government] feel sorry because people are poor, but they have to act. The law is for everyone: indigenous people, mestizos [mixed-raced colonists] – whoever they are.”
“They need to invest more in enforcement.”
But the Pro-Formal project is trying to understand why loggers choose not to comply with the laws – despite the evidence that those who do actually make a bigger profit.
“Applying for a harvesting plan sometimes requires them to cut more trees than they want or need to at the moment,” says CIFOR researcher Ayme Muzo, who carried out the surveys in Napo province.
“Many families are harvesting just 4 or 5 trees per year.”
Often these plans are negotiated by intermediaries who assist farmers to navigate the bureaucracy and provide capital – in exchange for some of the profits, Muzo says.
However, to compensate the costs, traders require a certain amount of timber before they will agree to draw up the plan.
And it’s not easy for smallholders to do it on their own, either.
Many of these communities lack electricity and cellphone coverage, let alone computer skills and internet access – so applying for the plan online is not a simple process.
In Orellana, Luis Andi says that when he and his neighbours need to harvest just small amounts of timber, the time and expense it takes to get a management plan far outweigh any benefits.
“Even to sell a tiny amount of timber, we are supposed to get a management plan. But to get it, you need cash – it can cost up to $2,000 to organise it,” he said.
“So sometimes, out of necessity, we work without a permit, to sell two or three trees.”
Lessons from Ecuador
Ecuador’s government says it is committed to improving the lives of small producers, and has introduced a variety of social programs to this end.
However, Elena Mejia says, the results of the Pro-Formal study highlight some of the limits of these programs.
“There’s an incoherence between what the government hopes to achieve – by improving the quality of life and the livelihood strategies of small producers – and what is actually happening. There are still gaps,” she says.
She says CIFOR will share the results with the government, which has been supportive of the study.
“They have given us all the necessary assistance, and this is very important, because without the help of local partners and the government, this investigation wouldn’t be as relevant,” she said.
Pablo Pacheco says these findings hold an important lesson, both for Ecuador and other countries: that it’s not always easy to bring smallholder timber harvesters into the fold, and that even simplified regulations may still be difficult for remote, poor communities to comply with.
“Over time there’s been more understanding about the institutional obstacles and barriers that communities and smallholders face, but there is a lack of political willingness to make these regulations a bit more flexible and adapted to the needs and interests of smallholders and communities,” he says.
“Forest management can be done in different ways and there’s not just one model that can be done everywhere.
“It’s not enough to devote attention to regulations to promote good forest management, without also looking at what are the other economic incentives that can be used to support smallholders and communities to manage the forest.”
“And in that sense Ecuador provides interesting lessons.”
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned.
For more information on issues discussed in this article, please contact Pablo Pacheco at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pro-Formal project (Policy and regulatory options to recognise and better integrate the domestic timber sector in tropical countries) is supported by the European Commission and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
Please note: This blog has been updated to replace a previous version.