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The Pinchot Wire: How a Growing Timber Business Revived a Forest
Dec 21, 2016

by Nathanael Johnson

The settlement of Cristóbal Colón, like most tiny towns scraped into the backcountry, was rough. There were no jobs in the rural community in western Ecuador, so people were leaving to eek out a meager existence in the capital. Houses were empty and alcoholism was a serious problem, Maria Quezada, a longtime resident of Colón, told me. “For those that remained there was only one option: clear the forest and establish plantations,” she said.

Most of the surrounding Chocó rainforest had already been chopped down for cattle ranching, cocoa plantations, and plywood companies. So when a timber company cut a logging road into the forest near the town, the area was primed for deforestation.

But this isn’t the standard story of paradise lost. It’s a story about how economic development can save the environment. In the last piece, I described a conservation project that failed because it put the environment before people. The people in Colón reversed that formulation and, by getting the economics right, they have also reversed what seemed like an inevitable trend toward deforestation. The forest — and the town — are rebounding.

“Families have come back to their houses because now there is sustainable industry,” Quezada said.

That industry consists of a local timber business called EcoMadera, which provides an alternative to the big logging companies and plywood factories. It pumps $550,000 in salaries into Colón each year, employing 66 people in a town of around 500 families — providing incomes well above the country’s norm. The company plants balsa trees on previously deforested land, which grow quickly and are ready for harvest within five years. The company is able to sustainably harvest wood while returning cleared areas to natural forest.

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