Wind turbine blades are often made from Balsa wood (Ochroma pyramidale). The illegal harvest and trade of Balsa wood in Peru appears to be growing as demand outstrips supply in neighboring Ecuador. Will the clean energy of the future be powered by illegally harvested timber?

See also: Ecuador Balsa wood seizures up almost 3x as clean energy drives demand for wind turbines

Wind turbine blades of Balsa wood

GE claims its Haliade-X 13 MW offshore wind turbine is the biggest and most powerful offshore wind turbine in the world. It’s blades are 107 meters long (351 ft) and made from fiberglass fabric and Balsa wood.

Haliade wind turbine

GE is not alone in their use of Balsa wood. Siemens Gamesa and Vestas also use Balsa wood in their wind turbine blade cores. Wood Mackenzie estimates that the global consumption of Balsa wood by wind turbine manufactures was about 240,000 cubic meters in 2019.

Why is Balsa used in so many wind blade cores? Simply because it’s strong and lightweight.

Magnified image of Balsa wood endgrain showing porous wood anatomy.
Magnified image of the end grain of Balsa wood. Photo: Mauro Halpern

Demand for Balsa wood outstrips supply in Ecuador

As of 2008, Ecuador produced 89% of the world’s commercial Balsa wood. In 2019 Balsa prices almost doubled. Supply was constrained by a long rainy season in Ecuador that limited harvesting and transport.

At the same time, demand for wind turbines spiked in the US and China. And prices in Ecuador were bid up by Chinese intermediaries. Ecuador’s COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020 didn’t help either, shutting down freight traffic. And the lingering economic impact of the pandemic seems to have induced economic need for alternative sources of rural income.

Balsa tree. Photo: Alejandro Bayer Tamayo

All of these factors have lead to a drastic increase in the seizure of Balsa wood in Ecuador. According to reports, the volume of Balsa seized in Ecuador in 2020 nearly tripled compared to 2019.

See: Ecuador Balsa wood seizures up almost 3x as clean energy drives demand for wind turbines

Balsa also grows in Peru

In Peru, Balsa – or “Topa” as it’s commonly called – occurs naturally in primary and secondary forests.

A map showing verifiable observations of the Balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale)
The Balsa tree is a tropical hardwood native to the Americas. This map shows recent verifiable observations of the tree. (Source: iNaturalist)

Although there are efforts to grow Balsa plantations in Peru, in general, timber plantations in Peru are limited.

Number of hectares under established timber plantation in Peru between 1997 and 2013. Source

The commercial harvest of Balsa timber from natural forests is typically not attractive because it’s uncompetitive compared to plantation grown Balsa.

In natural forests, Balsa tends to occur in inconsistent and distant volumes. While plantation grown Balsa can reach commercially viable sizes in as little as three years.

There’s evidence that the perfect storm of supply constraints in Ecuador combined with a boom for wind turbine blades has created demand for illicit harvests of Balsa in Peru.

Illegal Balsa wood shipments seized

In August of 2020, a shipment of illegally harvested Balsa wood destined for China was seized by Peruvian authorities in the port of Callao, Lima. The shipment consisted of 52 bundles totaling 173 cubic meters of lumber. According to the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), the wood was illegally extracted from the area of Puerto Inca in Huánuco.

Shipment of Balsa wood seized in Callao in November 2020. Photo: SERFOR

About a week later, another shipment of nine bundles totaling 53 cubic meters was seized at a highway control post in Churubamba, Huánuco. According to Peru’s Specialized Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (FEMA), the Balsa was transported with false documentation.

Small timber harvest operations

A closer look at the flow of illegal Balsa wood in Peru reveals the nature of illegal extraction. It appears to be small scale harvesting operations that are organized, at least in part, by lumber companies domiciled in, or with connections to Ecuador.

For example, on November 13, authorities seized about 16.5 cubic meters of illegal Balsa wood in the district of Pachiza. The small scale nature of this operation is evident in the picture below.

Piles of allegedly illegal Balsa wood in Pachiza, Peru. Photo: FEMA Peru

Also in October and November of 2020, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampís Nation (GTANW) reported that the illegal harvest and trade of timber was occurring in the Rio Santiago district by a company from Ecuador.

According to the following documentation, at least some of this timber is Balsa.

Balsa Peruana trafficked to Ecuador

That illegal Balsa wood is being harvested in Peru for export through Ecuador is supported by recent seizures near the border.

On November 19, 2020 a truckload of Balsa lumber was seized in Tumbes. According to FEMA Peru, the lumber was allegedly without proof of legal origin and was evading export controls at the border with Ecuador.

Truckload of alleged illegal Balsa wood in Tumbes, Peru. Photo: FEMA Peru

The following week, two truckloads of Balsa lumber were seized on November 27, 2020. Again, the Balsa was allegedly without proof of legal origin and destined for Ecuador.

Two trucks loaded with Balsa wood that were seized at the border between Peru and Ecuador.
Two truckloads of Peruvian Balsa lumber seized at the border with Ecuador on November 27, 2020: Photo: FEMA Peru

These incidents support the notion that the illegal harvest and trade of Balsa wood in Peru is a market response to the doubling of Balsa wood prices, driven primarily by the demand for wind turbines.

Wind turbine demand increasing

Demand forecasts for wind turbines anticipate a hot market over the next decade. The US Department of Energy forecasts total US wind capacity to double by 2030. And Wood Mackenzie projects that the global wind turbine supply chain represents a USD 600 Billion opportunity over the next decade.

While:

  • the replacement of Balsa wood with other core materials like PET is already occurring;
  • new Balsa plantations in places like Papua New Guinea will soon be ready to harvest; and,
  • new technologies allow for the recycling of Balsa wood in used blades;

…global Balsa consumption by wind turbine manufacturers is still expected to remain well over 200,000 cubic meters into 2023.

In the short term, it seems very possible that at least some of our clean energy will be powered by illegally harvested timber.

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Header photo: Malith D. Karunarathne