The Chuncho, Ecuador's Last Fine Wood, Is Caught Between Exploitation and Hope

Big tree
Bitácora Ambiental
Amazon, Ecuador
The Chuncho, Ecuador's Last Fine Wood, Is Caught Between Exploitation and Hope

Chuncho wood can spend more than 20 years outdoors without cracking or buckling, points out Gabriel Mendoza R., a former logger from the Orellana Province. “If the chuncho sticks are dried well and treated with a good lacquer, they remain unchanged for decades. I have chuncho doors and windows that get rain and sun, but they go more than 20 years without deforming. The same happens with the furniture, they are eternal."

Mendoza's testimony shows why this wood is as valued as it is looted. You just have to take a tour of sawmills and furniture stores in Quito, Ibarra (in the north of Ecuador) or Huambaló (a small town in Tungurahua in the Sierra Centro de Ecuador) to verify that furniture made of seike, as the chuncho is also called, is in high demand. A small table and four chairs could be priced at over a thousand dollars.

This appetite for the seike has made it almost disappear from the forests of the Amazon. The chuncho is a victim of selective logging, meaning the loggers enter the forest and cut only that species. Forestry engineers and wood merchants interviewed for this story repeated: There is less and less chuncho in the Amazon.

Cedrelinga cateniformis, which is the scientific name of the seike, chuncho or tornillo, is a leafy tree present in the Amazon of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The shortage of seike also takes its toll on the Ecuadorian timber industry. At EDIMCA, a company dedicated to producing and marketing forest products, seike is only sold in boards made with pressed slats (small beams glued together). The clerk of a store in Quito indicated that laminated chipboards are no longer produced with chuncho or seike. No trees are thick enough to make plank wood anymore, so “all the chuncho we have comes from our plantations in Quinindé (in the coastal zone of Ecuador).”

table
Table made  seike wooden slats / Credit: Franklin Vega.

One of the forest regents who requested anonymity, explained, "Seike is only found in deep-inland communities (away from rivers and main roads) and, with luck, some trees along the roadsides and edges of the farms."

But the seike trees found at the edges of farms and roads barely reflect those found naturally in the forests. The wild chuncho trees exceed 25 meters in height with diameters of up to 4 meters, while those of plantations or on the edges of the roads "barely" measure 18 meters high and 1.20 meters in diameter on average.

The alternative to using wild seike is the one that comes from forest plantations. These plantations of timber trees have been around for more than 20 years in the northern Amazon of Ecuador, in the provinces of Sucumbios (border with Colombia) and Orellana. For a decade, professionals from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INIAP) have been carrying out studies to achieve a variety of seike that farmers can use. However, peasants and small loggers began to plant this species in 2000, and now they "harvest" their managed plantations. 

“There is no longer cedar (Cedrela odorata, a very desirable fine wood). The Colombian loggers took everything. Now we only have chuncho, and that's because I planted these trees 22 years ago," explained René Avilés, a timber merchant and owner of three farms in the Cascales sector, in the Sucumbíos province, in northern Ecuador, 20 kilometers from the border with Colombia.

Avilés proudly shows his chunchos planted by his family: “When I arrived 25 years ago, all this was a large patch of chuncho. We cut most of them, but we left some of them, the best ones: taller, with straight trunks and more than 2 meters in diameter to use their seeds. These trees are the children of those seedlings."

Walking through one of the farms with chunchos is close to walking through preserved forests: a few understory plants and many dry leaves on the ground. The chunchos cover the canopy with branches; hardly any sunlight filters down to the ground. People recognize that it is a plantation when they see the trunks aligned, planted in quadrants three meters apart on each side. “So, together, they grow fast, compete for light, and develop taller. When they reach 15 meters, we prune them and remove the branches or cut the crooked trees; in this way, we will have good wood in 20 years, which is the recommended age to take advantage of chuncho wood."

But this knowledge has taken him years to develop using trial and error. "At the beginning, we planted the chuncho seeds in squares of 8 meters on each side, but they were filled with low branches and the wood was not good." A similar process of trial and error, he used for the substrate of the plastic bags where the seeds that he collects from his "reproducing" mutts are sown. This is the base where the young chunchos germinate. It comprises yellow earth, compost and a few rocks.

Avilés, who also commented that he was a supplier to one of the companies of the Peña Durini logging group (well-known Ecuadorian loggers), recalls that he was in charge of buying chuncho throughout the Amazon and selling it to that business group to make plywood.

“From a chuncho beam they took a sheet the thickness of a sheet of paper to stick it on one side of boards made with agglomerates of any wood. The factory closed, and I stopped selling to them. Those were good times, and I earned good money, but the market was damaged, and the chuncho was increasingly scarce".

All this empirical knowledge is shared with Leider Tinoco, an INIAP researcher, who is developing a project to establish a resistant variety of chuncho that can be planted as eucalyptus or teak. To find out about the progress of this public institute, it is enough to look for the scientific articles that have been published, despite budget cuts and limitations, making progress.

landscape
Seike research plantation at INIAP's Central Experimental Station of the Amazon / Credit: Franklin Vega.

Isn't this domestication of the chuncho?

Yes, we are looking for the best plants for farmers to plant, emphasizes Tinoco, who explains that they have been studying plots with chuncho at INIAP for eight years with 20 different sources from various provinces; that is, with chuncho seeds from various farms and from other provinces of Ecuador. It will take a few years for a variety of chuncho to be marketed as cacao has been, and to become an alternative for farmers looking for commercial trees to plant on their farms.

The unknowns yet to be revealed range from the soil type in which chunchos grow best, the best substrate for the seeds to develop, and the different varieties of chunchos. Avilés emphasized that the chunchos from Sucumbíos are better than those from Pastaza or those from the south of the Amazon.

“The wood is denser, the marble is different, and it lasts much longer. When I sell chuncho from Sucumbíos, I charge a dollar more for each plank, people who know, know the difference, and pay more for this wood. For example, the chuncho from the north of Ecuador produces a finer wood than Pastaza's”.

Another issue that remains to be determined is the optimal management of seeds. “We are working at INIAP to determine the best way to preserve them. If stored refrigerated, at what temperature and for how long? We know that the germination percentage of fresh seeds is high, and they can be stored for up to 30 days without losing their germinating power,” points out Tinoco.

With this objective, Tinoco visits farms and collects information from farmers who have chuncho planted or sell seeds from their trees.

Men beside a tree
René Avilés, a timber trader from Sucumbíos and reforested from Chuncho (left), and Leider Tinoco, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIAP) / Credit: Franklin Vega.

The seedbeds of chuncho

Hugo Bastidas is one of the suppliers of chuncho seedlings in the province of Sucumbíos (in the northern Amazon of Ecuador); his farm is near the Sevilla parish. Bastidas is a farmer, rancher and malanga dealer (a tuber used to make French fries in fast food chains).

In addition to the beef cattle, he keeps several chuncho trees with trunks with diameters greater than 2 meters and a height of 25 meters. These are the seedbeds of him. “I collect the seeds from these trees and sell them by the thousands. Unfortunately, now they require an electronic invoice; there are too many permits and requirements. This is why I no longer sell the seeds”.

Bastidas recalls several researchers have come to his farm to measure and study his chunchos and analyze his plantations. "I don't like planting them together; I prefer to let them grow at their own pace because the wood comes out better," he says while showing one of his two lots with 12-year-old chunchos, all descendants of the trees he decided not to cut when he arrived as a settler 22 years ago.

Bastidas affirms that he does not do thinning either — cutting the branches and pruning the trees to encourage them to grow taller and not wider — in his plantations. "That is losing money, throwing away wood, and now the merchants buy everything, even the thick branches."

Man looking at a tree
Hugo Bastidas / Credit: Franklin Vega. 

Leider Tinoco, the INIAP researcher, explains that if height and diameter are gained (thicker and broader trees), the lost branches are recovered in better-priced wood as they have taller trunks and greater diameter. “The way to manage the chuncho is another of the aspects that we analyze to recommend the best cultivation practices for this species. At the moment we know that it is best to plant them in quadrats 3 meters long, thinning once they reach 12 meters”.

Where to plant chunchos? For Tinoco, the answer is complex and has some variables under analysis. "We still don't know which type of soil favors wood density the most, but we have noticed that wood density is better in reddish-yellow soils (with a high clay content) than in black ones (with a layer of deeper nutrients); however, these observations have to go through the scientific process to be confirmed with analysis and studies. In both types of soil, chuncho grows very well."

Tinoco still lacks time and analysis to have "sufficient certainties to develop a plant that is useful to farmers, and that helps, to some extent, to reduce the intense logging of chuncho that occurs in the Amazon forests."

This selective, legal and illegal logging is evident when analyzing the official figures for chuncho in Ecuador by the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE) and the Ministry of Agriculture. The MAATE is in charge of the native forest source and the MAG of the plantations.

wounded tree
Seike trunk marked as part of the forestry study before elaborating the felling plan / Credit: Franklin Vega.

Flawed forest management

MAATE's forest control has some flaws in the territory. Several visits were made to the Amazonian provinces of Pastaza, Napo, Orellana and Sucumbios to prepare this report. At the Baeza checkpoint (in Napo, three hours from Quito), only the trucks that pass by are controlled and generally have mobilization guides. No information is offered to the public on the number of trucks or the type of wood that is mobilized.

When visiting some protected areas of the Amazon and talking privately with the park rangers, the answer is the same: "We don't have gasoline to move the cars and boats. We lack personnel and legal support from the authorities." No park ranger wanted to be photographed, and they spoke on the condition that their names and the names of the protected areas in which they work be kept confidential.

The other issue they confirmed is that there is illegal timber trafficking. Protected species such as cedar (Cedrela odorata) and chuncho are cut down and transported along with other species. Not all park rangers at MAATE's fixed and mobile checkpoints can recognize the different woods and pass with mobilization guides, which is the document issued by MAATE and MAG to authorize the mobilization of wood throughout Ecuador. Legal, but they serve to "launder" illegal logging.

Another of the problems detected was that it is possible to buy mobilization guides. A case was documented in the province of Pastaza in which, in investigating the theft of wood, it was determined that the guide used to transport the wood corresponded to an Indigenous community. The process to clarify this crime started with an image of the truck that extracted the wood from the access road to a farm. The thief did not know that the owner had installed a surveillance camera among the trees.

With the photo of the truck, they were able to obtain details of how the crime was committed, the Quito sawmill where the stolen wood was sold, and the origin of the mobilization guide. The details of the dates and places are omitted for the safety of those affected. The sale of guides is a common practice in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

On this point, at the Sustainable Forest Management Congress, organized by the FAO and MAATE last March, forestry engineer Walter Palacios denounced that mobilization guides are still being sold on the black market.

wood
Chuncho / Credit: Franklin Vega

The ecological value of the chuncho

Julio de la Torre, an agronomist with 25 years of experience in development projects in the Amazon, emphasizes that one of the most frequent requests from the farms with whom he has worked has been to implement chuncho plantations or use them for agroforestry systems in which chuncho trees are combined with other crops such as coffee.

“This association between chuncho and other crops is especially beneficial. In addition to providing shade, it provides nutrients to the soil used by other plants. The chuncho is a Fabaceae, that is to say, a relative of the bean, and thanks to its roots, it fixes nitrogen in the forest floor or the crops,” emphasizes Julio de la Torre.

It is a valuable alternative to combine with other crops, such as cocoa or coffee. This practice is known as agroforestry systems. The chunchos can be associated with fruit tree crops to provide shade and take advantage of the nitrogen they fix in the soil.

This ecological function of the chuncho, added to its physical (wood has veins that make wood attractive) and mechanical properties (its resistance), rapid growth, and high commercial value, are the reasons to be considered a crop with high ecological and commercial value.

Due to this function, the presence of the native chuncho is vital to maintain the balance in the soils of the tropical humid forest. However, there are no specific studies on the chuncho and its contribution to ecosystems.

Despite this, Seike continues to be a scarce wood in the forests, but it is one of the most widely offered in carpentry and fine joinery workshops in Ecuador. For example, a seike dining set is listed for $1,200 for a table and six chairs with a 20-year warranty. In another place, solid chuncho doors (brought directly from the Amazon, according to their owners) are offered for $300 each. This tree will likely be used until it disappears.

chart with numbers
Detail of the wood produced in the forest plantations of Ecuador dedicated to Seike (Cedrelinga catenaeformis) according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture of Ecuador (MAG) / Credit: Bitácora Ambiental.

Seike felling in numbers

The “legal” extraction of seike or chuncho begins with identifying the trees, either in the humid tropical forests of the Amazon or on the farmers' plantations.

Once the landowner locates the trees characterized by thick whitish trunks and large leaves (from a distance, they are similar to cedar, but the leaves of this one are small), they contact a forester regent.

The forester goes to the forests to measure the trees and mark them. He tabulates the information. He determines which individuals are suitable for logging and prepares a Forest Harvesting Plan for a large extension or a Cutting Plan for a small farm.

With the documentation from the forest owners, he prepares a folder and presents it for authorization to the MAATE so that the felling permits can be issued.

A price of three dollars per cubic meter is paid to the state, 600 dollars for 200 m3, and the forest regent charges three dollars per cubic meter of standing trees. Already sawn, of those 200 m3, only 100 m3 remain due to the waste that each cut implies.

At this point, the loggers or executors enter with chainsaws and machinery to drag the wood in the case of large plans. If they are small, mules transport the wood to the roads.

Another way to negotiate is to sell the standing trees. The farmers sell each chuncho tree to the loggers for a fixed value, between 30 and 50 dollars each. But the risk is borne by the logger. What is the risk? The trees are hollow inside and have no wood, just a long tube of wood with no commercial value.

For the farmers, the best way to take advantage of the forest is to cut down their trees with their own hands or by hiring personnel once the studies and procedures have been completed. This is the most common way of logging the chunchos in the province of Sucumbíos and Orellana. Each plank sells for 8 dollars on average, and 33 planks are needed to make a cubic meter measuring 2.40 by 0.25 meters wide and 0.05 meters thick.

man with horse in forest
The wood is felled and sawn (boards and planks are made) in the forest and then hauled to the roads for transport to collection centers / Credit: Franklin Vega.

The official figures of the seike leave doubts

Is the seike wood that is sold in Ecuador legal? The answer implies knowing the official figures and affirming that what is legal is what is sold with permits; however, when analyzing the figures for this precious wood, some doubts arise. The main one: What is the figure for all the extracted seike wood?

The Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) registers 218.04 hectares with seike forest plantations, which groups 27 forest producers who own the plantations. In 2022 (latest data available), 2,254.41 cubic meters of seike were approved, and 1,170.16 m3 were mobilized.

But when reviewing the figures, an inconsistency in the volume is found. On average, one hectare planted with seike produces 150 to 200 m3, depending on the age of the plantation. When calculating the figures presented by the MAG with a forester, it is clear that not all plantations are considered since some from before 2013 are still in production. This concern was presented to the MAG, but there is no official answer. It was possible to verify that there are plantations over 20 years old that are not registered in the MAG.

The professional who collaborated in the analysis of the figures indicates that it is most probable that only the data of the forest plantations that are under the figure of forestry incentives were presented. In other words, the Ecuadorian state invested money to plant this and 12 other forest species. "They did not present the information on the area from which the use of chuncho is being carried out", he indicates.

Unofficially, we know that in 2022 only the seike felling of 26.12 hectares of forest plantations was approved. In this way, the data on wood harvested and mobilized volume coincide.

truck with timber on a road
Truck with seike logs on the Tena-Puyo highway in the central Amazon of Ecuador / Credit: Franklin Vega

An insufficient measure to control legal and illegal logging

According to the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE), the National Forest and Wildlife Control System Project carries out forest control activities through its technical staff at 13 fixed checkpoints and with 13 mobile units, verifying the mobilized product which must have an administrative authorization, and the right species according to what is declared in the document.

Given the lack of chuncho, evident in the tropical humid forests of the Amazon of Ecuador, the MAATE determined in 2015 that the chuncho (Cedrelinga catenaeformis) be treated as a species of conditioned use. This is stated in the norms for the sustainable forest management of humid forests. This regulation is known as the Ministerial Agreement 125 of the Ministry of the Environment.

The agreement does not specify what "conditional" forest management implies, but it does include 17 more forest species, such as mahogany or guayacán. A forestry engineer indicates "conditional management" implies that "if there are two chunchos in a given area, only one is allowed to be harvested."

Why do forest engineers not want to appear in any journalistic note? The answer lies in all the dammed procedures that the Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador has, which, according to Marcelo Mata, former Minister of the Environment, add up to more than 6,000 processes in all areas: productive, conservation.

“Now we can only draw up felling plans; the harvesting plans are on hold. If we criticize the Ministry, it is most likely that they will not approve our procedures, and we live from our work,” explains a forest regent.

Until May 19, MAATE, through the Forestry Direction, collected comments and contributions for updating the secondary regulations on managing natural forests in Ecuador. This legal instrument regulates "the elaboration of the Comprehensive Management Plan for forest management within the framework of the Organic Code of the Environment and its current regulations." In other words, the norm allows the use of native forests and not only the cutting plans of the communities as is the case today.

The objective of the reform, according to the Ministry of the Environment, is that "the Comprehensive Management Plans be prepared considering aspects of conservation and restoration within natural forests and not only under a forest use approach, which according to the MAATE, "has prevented adequate Sustainable Forest Management." In other words, they recognize that there is no sustainable forest management.

Walter Palacios, a renowned forestry engineer from Ecuador, agrees with this assessment. "Forest management plans are only on paper: There are forests with so much wood that they should have two and three floors," he declared before the national authorities without obtaining a response. 

screenshot of a website
Screenshot of the Forest Administration System (SAF) of Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE). Forest information is confidential, and access requires a request and signing of a confidentiality agreement with legal repercussions if the data obtained is disseminated / Credit: Bitácora Ambiental.

The figures of the seike that leaves the Amazon

Suppose you look at the statistics of the Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador. In that case, use of the seike or chuncho from the forests, mainly from the Amazon of Ecuador, is marginal. It represents less than 1% of the other woods.

The following table shows that its felling has cycles with increases and decreases per year. In addition, since applying the restriction in 2015, the percentage of seike or chuncho that leaves the forests has remained between 0.48% and 0.51% of the total wood that leaves the forests of Ecuador. 

graph
Total volume per year of forestry product in Ecuador / Credit: Bitácora Ambiental.

This value does not necessarily reflect reality or is based on previous data. For example, in the "Study on Forest Use and Timber Markets in the Ecuadorian Amazon," edited by Elena Mejía and Pablo Pacheco and published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the chuncho or seike (Cedrelinga catenaeformis) is a species of high demand used in native forests and used mainly for the manufacture of doors and frames.

This study is one of the most cited on the Ecuadorian timber market and says: “According to the Forest Administration System (SAF) in 2011, it represents 4.5% of the total volume mobilized in the Amazon region. It is necessary to mention that the type of pressure exerted on the species due to its current extraction is unknown. CITES does not restrict this species. It is specially marketed for doors and floors, exporting these products to regional markets such as Venezuela.”

When analyzing the figures, it is observed that until 2011 seike represented 4.5% of the total wood; by 2013, it was 1.54%, and by 2022, 0.30%. In other words, there are no longer seike in the forests. The declaration as a conditioned species in 2015 came when this species already represented less than 1% of the commercialized wood.

The seike disappears from the forests despite insufficient government initiatives for its protection. The will of INIAP officials and loggers maintain a genetic reserve of this wood. It is like seeing jaguars or sharks reproducing in captivity because no other options are left. Still, these trees are part of a forest, a complex ecosystem maintained despite human pressure.

The seike will be saved by a de facto association between government researchers and loggers.


This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Bitácora Ambiental on August 20, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The chuncho / Credit: Franklin Vega.

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