Indigenous farmers fight eucalyptus damage to water source in Ecuador

In Ecuador’s central Cotopaxi province, massive industrial eucalyptus production is presenting problems for Cotopaxi’s rural economy, which traditionally thrived on flower and broccoli production.

Article by Johnny Magdaleno.

SALCEDO, Ecuador – The southeastern wedge of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi province is filled with rich agricultural land. It sprawls in small divided plots of greens and ambers across the region’s hills, ravines, and mountainsides.

But the indigenous farmers that call this area home are facing perennial water shortages that are crippling crop diversity. The shortages spurred an investigation due to start this year by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries and the Secretariat of Water into possible causes.

A clear culprit is nearby tree plantations that cover hundreds of acres throughout the Nagsiche River water basin. Because they’re made up of exotic species like eucalyptus and pine, they wreak havoc on the soil, with each tree sucking about 5-10 gallons (20 to 40 liters) of water out of the ground every day.

This can thwart crop rotations for local farmers like Maria Beatriz Padilla.

“All this land used to give a great harvest,” Padilla said, listing her former crops. “Beans, peas, Andean lupin, lentils, garbanzos, quinoa.”

She’s spent her 50 years on this same small plot in the Cusubamba district of the Salcedo region, where she makes about $300 a month selling her produce. But now, across the plains surrounding her house are patches of eucalyptus trees reaching dozens of feet into the sky.

A wild patch of eucalyptus trees sprouts up in the middle of agricultural land. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/Mongabay.

“And now? Potatoes, some corn,” she said, noting that there are additional costs to the farmers and the environment. “You have to fumigate now where in the past you didn’t have to.”

Cotopaxi’s rural economy thrives on flower and broccoli production, but in the 1990s, lumber companies began contracting with indigenous farmers to grow eucalyptus and other trees for harvest on their property. The trees were introduced to the area in the 19th century, according to the FAO.

Today, logging in the Sierras provides up to 45 percent of Ecuador’s $200 million lumber export industry, which ships off to countries like the United States where the tree’s essential oils are used in makeup and medicines, and Japan, where it plays a major role in the paper industry.

Yet over the past 15 years, some stretches of the Nagsiche River have seen their water flow decrease by 40 percent, according to information provided by the Secretariat of Water.

In previous years Salcedo’s tree growers, the vast majority of whom are individuals who sell their lumber to different wood processors and exporters, faced little government oversight as they managed their eucalyptus grows, and now the tree species native to Australian but grown globally is fast encroaching on a local water source. About 18,000 Ecuadorians in the Cotopaxi province, many of them indigenous farmers, depend on that water source.

In interviews, some of Padilla’s agrarian neighbors say harvesting eucalyptus provides an economic boon to the area when crops aren’t performing.

Possible way forward

Concern for the environment runs in the family. Padilla’s brother, Moises Padilla, is testament to that. He says he may have found a way to reduce poor crop performance in the future, and not a moment too soon.

“It’s worse than a plague,” Moises Padilla said as he pulled a young eucalyptus sapling from the earth. As he stands on the hill of a steep, 99 acre (40 hectare) valley that drops down to the Nagsiche River, birds chirp and fly between the more than 80 plant species that shimmer across the incline, including Gentian violets, yellow romerillos and the yagual – a variety of colorful bushes. The Nagsiche River below can be heard rushing from two hundred feet above – a sign of a voluminous current healthy source of water.

That healthy rush of water is likely due in part to Moises. The terrain is part of a fenced-off area that he has been protecting from eucalyptus growths since 1999.

Frustrated with a lack of assistance from the local government to curb the eucalyptus problem, Moises and 400 other community members from the Salcedo region pooled together funds, with each family donating between $50 to $100 to purchase these 99 acres and turn them into an unofficial nature reserve.

It’s a slice of biodiversity paradise that looks like a thriving, diverse ecosystem.

On the other side of the road there’s a wild eucalyptus forest. The soil crumples into dust at the touch, the trees share the ground with weeds and there are no animals to be heard. It’s what Padilla’s reserve used to look like, but 18 years of maintaining the land has brought in a wealth of water and primary vegetation.

Moises attributes that health to the lack of one thing: the eucalyptus, of which there are numerous species.

“We see that every day the river flow is growing without the presence of eucalyptus trees here,” he said. He would know, because he and other indigenous farmers divert part of the water.

Rashes of wild eucalyptus crowd the Nagsiche River basin. The Ministry of Agriculture’s local branch does not keep track of how many hectares of wild eucalyptus, pine and other exotic species occupy the Salcedo region. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/Mongabay

Every second, 10.6 gallons (40 liters) of river water flows through a series of underground pipes to a small man-made reservoir at a lower elevation, which was built with funds from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. Moises says there are 500 community members who are now accessing that water for their crops.

Diverting that small percentage of river water ensures that it doesn’t get absorbed into the eucalyptus roots growing wildly along the riverbed. Such a threat wasn’t always present.

“The issue is that sometimes [lumberjacks] put these in areas that aren’t adequate for cultivation, like near water basins,” said Ruth Suisaca, a Cotopaxi spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Production System. “Management carries an extra cost, and it’s a high cost.”

According to Suisaca, the majority of area plantations just let the trees grow unchecked. A major difficulty with eucalyptus is that they shed seeds and grow like wildfire, making it difficult to manage a growth perimeter.

Multiple requests for an interview on forest plantation management to one of the primary lumber companies in the Cotopaxi region, Aglomerados Cotopaxi, a consortium of individual lumber contractors in the region, never received a response.

Lumber’s regional history

To reduce its reliance on exporting, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture established an incentives program to try to lure international lumber companies to the country in 2014. The plan, called the Programa de Incentivos para la Reforestación con Fines Comerciales, is still running and offers to subsidize the operating costs up to 75 percent of companies that help establish lumber processing factories in the country. Companies can also escape income taxes for the first 15 years.

Not everyone is a fan.

Nathalia Bonilla, a forests and plantations researcher for Ecuadorian environmental advocacy group Acción Ecológica, says Ecuador’s newer incentives program is based off of a controversial subsidy plan in Chile. The plan used in the skinny South American country that hugs the entire southeast coast of its continent was partly responsible for that country’s devastating forest fires this year – the worst in the country’s history, say activists.

In 1974, beneath the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chile began to offer subsidies of up to 70 percent to producers of eucalyptus and other high-demand lumber products to help expand the industry. It helped grow the number of forest plantations in the country from 300,000 hectares to 2.7 million hectares – a growth of 900 percent – between its enactment and 2013.

“In Ecuador we’ve spent decades growing eucalyptus, above all in the Sierras, so we’ve had enough time to see the environmental, social and ecological impacts these trees have,” Bonilla said. Eucalyptus dominates the national lumber economy, with 32.4 million cubic feet (918,303 cubic meters) of the wood processed every year.

Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture is now pushing for the growth of eucalyptus based on the Chilean subsidy model, which Bonilla notes, “we already know has failed.” In 2016, the Center for International Forestry Research published a study claiming that Chilean regions with higher percentages of tree plantations also saw higher levels of poverty, noting that water demands from trees like eucalyptus may be impacting profits of local farmers.

Nearly 164,000 hectares in Ecuador are devoted to producing and selling trees like the eucalyptus, a 12 percent growth since the last available industry numbers in 1995. Through the new incentives plan the government is promising an additional 2.6 million hectares to the forestry industry. The country’s economic plan from 2009 to 2013 already placed a major emphasis on forestry industry alongside mining and petroleum, the country’s two other major extraction industries. There are about 9.8 million hectares of forest in Ecuador, most of it part of the Amazon Basin.

Hesitant partners

The Padillas may have zeroed in on a way to reconcile water shortages with their reserve, but the challenge is getting a poor, rural region that has depended on agriculture for decades to put their instant economic needs aside for nature preservation.

In Ecuador the Instituto de Promoción de Exportaciones y Inversiones estimates that 335,000 people depend on the lumber industry to make a living.

Luis Cholango and his son, Luis Cholango Jr., are two such people.

Luis Cholango Jr. prepares a felled eucalyptus tree for transport to the coast, where it will ship off to countries like Japan and the United States. He makes $15 for every cubic meter of eucalyptus lumber. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/Mongabay

I came across them cutting eucalyptus trees from a steep hillside between the Nagsiche River and a plot of farm land on a recent trip to the area. Luis Cholango Jr., 24, was listening to reggaeton through the loudspeaker of his cell phone while wielding a chain saw in and out of a massive eucalyptus trunk. His 70-year-old father guided him with commands from nearby.

These men have been cutting eucalyptus trees from their region for the past five years, and make about $15 dollars per cubic meter. That amounts to about $4 to $7 per hour of work, not including the time to pack it up and load it onto a shipping truck. In Ecuador, madereros like the Cholangos often take home the national minimum wage, or $375 a month, if they work 40 hours a week for an employer.

“Sometimes there aren’t a lot of jobs available for the youth, so they have to look for other ways to survive. When there isn’t any other work, they’ll get involved in the lumber industry,” Cholango senior said.

But to some of their neighbors, they’re also providing a service.

“Some people say that cutting down trees is killing the ecosystem, but the people in this area say we have to get rid of the eucalyptus because it’s sucking up all the water,” Cholango Jr. said. He and his father said they’ve seen “major” drops in the local water supplies over the past few decades.

It’s unclear whether there has been an official measurement.

Authorities interviewed for this article gave little clarity on how they were addressing the issue. Salcedo mayor Hector Gutierrez and representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and Secretariat of Water all cited a lack of financial resources preventing them from cleaning up decades of tree growth. One major hurdle is that in order to cut down the trees, citizens have to apply for permits through the Ministry of Agriculture.

If you have a single eucalyptus tree on your farmland property that you want to cut down, you have to collect letters of approval from your community’s general assembly, the geographical coordinates of the area you’ll be removing the tree from, documents from the canton highlighting the history and boundaries of the land, a land management plan from the Ministry of Environment to confirm that the tree you want to cut isn’t part of a protected forest – and more.

If you don’t follow these rules, you risk getting fined.

“The law is very clear,” Suisaca said, who manages cutting applications for the Salcedo canton. “If you don’t have a license for the property, you can’t get permission.”

The problem, according to Moises, is that many indigenous farmers with unwanted exotic trees on their property never had property licenses in the first place.

“There aren’t formal properties – these terrains never had owners,” he says. “The municipality doesn’t permit them because they don’t have written deeds, so how do we handle that?”

Gutierrez says the previous municipal administration passed a local ordinance to begin removing eucalyptus and pine trees growing throughout the canton, but that it has been temporarily put on hold as they don’t have the funds required to keep developing it.

Suisaca says her ministry is now starting to assist with the issue, thanks to a new national water legislation passed in 2014, called the Ley Orgánica De Recursos Hídricos, Usos y Aprovechamiento del Agua, that placed greater emphasis on preserving water resources. To date her ministry has helped clear 40 hectares of pines and eucalyptus throughout Salcedo.

Recreating success

Replicating Padilla’s reserve model throughout the entire Nagsiche River basin would cost an estimated $500,000 to $700,000 dollars – money that the Salcedo government says it can’t contribute alone. They’re hoping that another agricultural canton that’s struggling with water issues downstream the Nagsiche, called Pujilí, will work with Salcedo to extend the reserve beyond Padilla’s domain.

“We want to look for financing from other parts of the country, and from international organizations,” Salcedo Mayor Gutierrez said.

Segundo Usuño, the Secretariat of Water representative overseeing the Salcedo district, says this part of southeast Cotopaxi will be a major target of restoration efforts sanctioned by 2014’s water legislation.

“Water is a resource that’s more and more scarce,” he said. “In the past we were only giving out authorization saying who could access the sources of water.”

Now they’re working beyond mitigating water access and trying to proactively protect the natural water sources they have. Usuño says the eucalyptus threat is “ an urgent matter, and we’re coordinating to eradicate these species.”

But only those that have escaped industrial forestry areas and are now growing wildly throughout Cotopaxi province. The same national government bodies trying to eradicate the species are also the ones trying to bring more eucalyptus plantations into the country.

“The entire world wants wood,” Suisaca said. “[The industry] is not going to disappear.”

He and his sister Maria, the farmer, continue to argue that eradicating eucalyptus trees and turning their lands into nature reserves will restore lost acres of páramo, the water-retentive biodiverse ecosystem unique to the Andes, and revitalize humidity levels in the soil. But based on their interactions with communities throughout the Nagsiche basin, they realize they’re still in the minority.

“We have to analyze what it is that we’re doing that’s doing the most damage [to the land],” she says. “If not, in the long term we’re going to die of hunger.”

Additional reporting by Silvia Vimos

Banner image: Moises Padilla near his community’s nature reserve. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/Mongabay

Johnny Magdaleno is a freelance journalist who frequently reports from Ecuador.

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Important for the farmers