Eco-Madera: Sustainable Wood From Ecuador - Part 1

One of the projects I am working on here in Ecuador for the Kallari Association is the redesign of their café in Quito. Having been very successful in their first year and a half the café’s business has slumped in recent months and the wear and tear on the interior is noticeable. With the increasing popularity of Kallari's Chocolate, in Ecuador and Internationally, it seems about time to raise the café’s profile to reflect the standard of their world class chocolate. With Kallari producing organic chocolate and fair trade crafts and working for sustainable livelihoods the revamp is of course going to be as eco-friendly as possible. Over the next few weeks I will be writing about how the design work is progressing, the materials we choose, the furniture we design and the challenges, failures and successes we encounter along the way. Today we start with the floor and the prospect of working with Eco-Madera.Currently there is a eucalyptus wooden floor in the café, which is looking rather worse for wear. Eucalyptus is not native plant here in Ecuador, it was introduced in the late 1800s from Australia. Eucalyptus was popular initially because it is hardy and grows fast in degraded soils, but in hindsight it is evident that eucalyptus plantations are inhospitable to native plants and it has become an invasive species across the highland regions. Fortunately a local company, Eco-Madera, produces wooden floors and doors made from sustainably harvested wood from mixed native species plantations (see photo above). More fortuitous still is the fact that Eco-Madera is currently looking for a showroom space here in Quito. What better place than the Kallari Café!

Eco-Madera is a particularly interesting company because it not only sources mixed species native wood, but its shareholders are actually the farmers who supply the wood. The story started when an American, by the name of David Smith, was posted to Ecuador on a Peace Corps project in 2001. He specifically requested that he be sent to a place where nature and civilization meet, contrast and conflict with one another. He was sent to the town of Cristobal Colón in Ecuador’s north western province of Esmeraldas. His first project in Cristobal Colón was setting up a community bank, during this process he spent much time with the locals discussing how they could best earn a sustainable income from their natural resources. This led to a community plant nursery project and in turn the idea to start working on agro-forestry projects in this region.

In Esmeraldas the tropical rainforest meets the Pacific Ocean and logging this forest is big business. Not for the local farmers though, they are paid such low prices for their very valuable natural resource that they are living at subsistence levels and are very often in debt to the intermediary wood buyers. You can see from the map images below the rapid advance of deforestation in the coastal provinces of Ecuador over the 20th century which, it is thought, has been at least ten times faster than that in the Amazon region. Now 19 years after that last image there’s even less precious native forest left and a lot of degraded land which could be regenerated.

David Smith set up the Eco-Madera project along with his friend Peter Pinchot. Peter was a former chairman of the Pinchot Institute, the leading forestry policy organisation in the US. The Pinchot Institute was named after Peter’s grandfather, Gifford Pinchot, who was appointed as the first head of the Forestry Service in the US. Peter, however, gave up his Chairman post in order to move to Ecuador and spend more time working at the grass roots level of the forestry industry with Eco-Madera. David and Peter started the Eco-Madera project in 2001 with the aim of encouraging conservation and social economic development. The project has come to life through the cooperation sixteen local farmers who over the last few years have earned their shareholding status in the business by working to set up the company’s infrastructure. Eco-Madera also has technical support from two NGOs, one being the Pinchot Institute in the US and one based here in Ecuador called Jatun Sacha, which also works to promote forest conservation.

You can catch the second part of this post about Eco-Madera tomorrow when we go further into how Eco-Madera works with the farmers and how the product end of the business is getting off the ground. As yet Eco-Madera doesn’t have it’s own website, but you can access information about their work through the Pinchot Institute. :: Kallari

Tags: Ecuador

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