Q&A: In the Amazon, important tree species remain ‘under the radar’

Smallholders risk fines to harvest timber that provides important sources of income.
Bolaina and pigüe are sold for local and national markets, so they are important sources of income, especially emergency cash for smallholders.

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of four articles about CIFOR’s research on smallholder bolaina logging in the Amazon. Part 1 can be read here. Part 2 can be read here. Part 3 can be read here. 

LIMA, Peru — In parts of the Peruvian Amazon, one of the first trees to spring up in uncultivated fallow fields is the fast-growing bolaina (Guazuma crinita), which is used for inexpensive housing construction. In Ecuador, the pigüe tree (Piptocoma discolor) is similarly a hardy pioneer species that provides inexpensive wood for fruit crates and pallets. In both cases, selling the timber from trees that have grown up in former crop fields provides additional income for smallholder families.

Forestry laws in Peru and Ecuador were not originally designed to support this type of timber extraction, and because it is difficult to comply with existing laws, smallholders risk being fined or having their timber confiscated when they take it to market.

Peter Cronkleton, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), specializes in community forestry development, researching smallholder land-management techniques to understand how best to balance government policies with healthy forest maintenance and improve livelihoods.

Q: Why are you studying this type of timber production?

A: Bolaina and pigüe grow rapidly when fields are abandoned and left fallow. They aren’t as valuable as the timber from slow-growing trees such as cedar or mahogany, which are harvested for export. Bolaina and pigüe are sold for local and national markets, so they are important sources of income, especially emergency cash for smallholders. While these types of species have been studied by researchers in the past, they have not received much attention from policy makers — in a sense, these timber species are “under the radar” of public policy.

The management systems for these forest products are poorly understood by policy makers and don’t receive much recognition from development planners. In Peru, a substantial number of people are supported by the bolaina market chain — not just the people who grow and harvest bolaina, but also the secondary industries that process and transport this wood around the country. In Ecuador, pigüe is a key source material for wooden crates required by the country’s fruit and vegetable producers and provides valuable cash income at crucial points in the year for some families.

Q: What are you learning about how these species are managed?

A: We wanted to look at how people actually use forests — not at how policies say they should use them. Our goal is to understand the costs and benefits of that type of forest use, and whether policies can be adjusted to make those activities more equitable and sustainable. Many people criticize smallholders, often characterizing their production as ‘migratory agriculture’ driving deforestation and saying they’re not complying with forestry legislation, but the management of fast-growing timber species in secondary forests is highly productive and supports a large number of people in some rural areas of the Amazon. It’s also relatively sustainable. The environmental impact of this type of logging is qualitatively different from the logging of hardwoods in old-growth forests.

Q: What makes these fast-growing trees so important?

A: They’re quite resilient. Under the right conditions, if you clear an area and burn it, these species come back, as long as you leave some seed trees nearby. Smallholder properties are often “mosaics” of crops, forests and fallows, and these trees are adapted to that type of landscape. They appear very quickly when farmers let lands go back into fallow. Because these species are seen as marginally important species, they don’t attract much attention from policy makers or government officials, and as a result, there aren’t concerted efforts to monitor this production, and that is reflected in official statistics.

Q: Economically, what role can these species play in alleviating poverty?

A: They probably already play a role in poverty reduction, given the number of people who are supported by them, and who have few other alternatives for cash income. If more research focused on them and the industries they support, it would be possible to identify ways in which these systems could be made more efficient and provide more income to the people involved.

Q: What obstacles do smallholders face in managing these species?

A: Often the biggest problem is that they don’t have a clear legal status. Authorities in the Amazon recognize that these are relatively low-value products coming from fallows, so they don’t place a lot of emphasis on policing them, and they often look the other way to allow people to harvest and transport these types of wood. However, that is not always the case, and smallholders run a series of risks. They’re sometimes forced to pay bribes or risk having their wood confiscated at checkpoints, and they don’t have much legal protection or ability to negotiate a fair price.

We assume that these are relatively sustainable production systems, but we need to verify that

Peter Cronkleton

In Ecuador, the law was changed, so smallholders can obtain authorization for the sale and transport of wood, but it’s costly and complicated for them to go through the registration process to become legal. Because the harvests of pigüe are only done sporadically and at a very small volume, it is not worth the effort for most producers.

In Peru, there are contradictions in the law making it difficult for people to have clear rights over forests on their land. The issues vary from country to country, but in general local people have difficulty getting legal access to forests, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.

Q: How could regulations be changed to allow smallholders to use these species without threatening forests?

A: These kinds of woods are easy to identify, and they’re not coming out of old-growth forests. It would be easy for police or inspectors at checkpoints to recognize that this isn’t wood coming from those areas. They could adjust the norms so smallholders wouldn’t suffer confiscation or fines for transporting it. For example, in some countries in Latin America, these types of species have been reclassified as wood crops, so they’re basically not regulated by forestry legislation. They fall under agricultural norms.

Q: Does that create a perverse incentive?

A: I don’t think it does in this case. The market is already fairly vigorous for these species. People are harvesting this wood, and it responds very well to these types of harvest. Policymakers could design a system where a smallholder who has a hectare or half-hectare could harvest a certain amount of timber every year. It would be sustainable and would provide a fairly substantial chunk of the family’s annual income.

Q: What further research is needed?

A: We need to identify and understand the constraints and problems these producers face. Where do these species regenerate? Are there varieties that grow better than others? Are there pests or diseases that attack these stands? What are the most efficient ways of processing the wood for different uses? We assume that these are relatively sustainable production systems, but we need to verify that. We also don’t know the best practices for producing these species. We have some ideas, but they need to be validated in the field.

It also would be useful to identify other products that fill similar niches in other countries or other parts of the Amazon. I think we’d find there’s a whole range of species being used throughout the Amazon. There really hasn’t been systematic research into how these different types of wood are used.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Peter Cronkleton at

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