All you need to know about the Balsa trees in Ecuador

By Stef Zivsoska 

The Balsa woods are typical for almost all parts of South America. The wood is light, but at the same strong, and easy to shape. These qualities make balsa wood quite popular among the construction industrialists in the tropical regions. What's interesting to know about it is that the biggest production and exportation of balsa wood comes from the small, Latin American country, Ecuador. The Inca Indians that lived in the areas where Ecuador is now used balsa wood to make rafts for transportation of food, arms, and other goods across the Guayas River, the largest river in the coastal region of the country.
                                      Balsas and kayak - Author: alfredo saints - CC-BY 2.0 
Although balsa also grows in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Ecuador exports 95% of all the balsa wood in the world. You may wonder why is that? The answer is simple, Ecuador has the perfect climate conditions that doesn't change throughout the year.Balsa trees need warm climate with plenty of rainfall and a good drainage. Therefore, they are usually found on the elevated ground between tropical rivers where the humidity reaches high levels all year round. The region around Quevedo, a city known for banana, cacao, and coffee exportations, is where balsa forests of Ecuador are located too. Quevedo has a tropical climate and its local wood factories export balsa wood to Europe and the United States.

Incredible fact about the balsa trees is that there are actually no natural balsa forests in the wilderness. The balsa trees grow as a single tree on a small group in the middle of the jungle. They reproduce in a way that they produce long seed pods that get transported by the wind to a different part of the jungle and eventually fall on the ground. The seed then waits for the jungle canopy to open one day and let the sun reach the new balsa tree. The young trees are thick as grass, and they often need help to survive. Local people around Quevedo and experts of balsa wood industry are taking care of the saplings and help them grow.
                                    Balsa airframe - Author: Zach Vesoulis

One more reason why the balsa trees perfect for the wood construction industry is because they grow extremely fast. A six-month-old balsa tree is already 10-12 feet tall and with a diameter of 1/2 inches. In six to ten years, a balsa tree is ready to cut and process. A tree at this age is 70 - 90 feet tall with a 12 to 45 inches diameter. If not harvested, the balsa tree can grow up to six feet in diameter, but this usually doesn't happen because of the extreme exploitation of the wood.

The Ecuadorian Jungle eco-system has a very well organized natural hierarchy. The Balsa tree is also known as the nurse of the jungle because it protects the slow-growing seedlings when there's a severe rainstorm that can harm the young trees. In those moments, the balsa starts growing even faster and spreads its giant leaves over the smaller trees. This natural process is so fascinating that balsa became the favorite tree among all other species in the Quevedo region.

Balsa wood is not the lightest one in the world, but it's definitely the strongest light wood on the planet. Only 40% of the balsa log is a solid substance, and the rest is water. The rainfall and the condensation fill up every balsa solid cell with water until it becomes rigid. To understand why the balsa wood is so strong and it's mostly made of water, compare it with a car tire full of air. Sounds logical, right?

                                           Balsa tree - Author: Marco Schmidt [1] - CC BY-SA 2.5
The state of Ecuador is pretty much focused on balsa wood growth and exportation. Knowing that the wood is light and floating, the main export goes to the cruiser producing countries. Ecuadorian coastal towns, famous for their surfing culture, have more and more new craftsmen that handshape balsa wood surfboards. These board shapers are real masters in their craft, and their boards reach prices that are higher than any other surfing board in the world. This fact speaks for the quality, the strength and the floatability of the balsa wood.

Balsa tree plantations in Ecuador are present in the coastal region and in the Amazonian part. According to the experts from the balsa wood industry near Cotopaxi, currently, in Ecuador, there are around 20.000 acres of balsa plantations. Knowing that this tree doesn't grow in big formations naturally, people are cultivating it and export the 90% of the whole production. Only 10% of the entire balsa wood production stays in Ecuador, and it's used for artisanal needs.

The main uses of balsa wood in the past were to construct British de Havilland Mosquito combat planes during World War II. Nowadays balsa is used in the passenger compartments in the planes because of its light weight and endurance. Also, you can find plenty of objects made of balsa wood in airplane model stores. Table tennis bats are also made out of balsa placed between plywood layers. Furniture, model bridges, musical string instruments, insulation are just some additional uses of this incredible tree. 

The Ecuadorian government makes serious efforts to increase the production of balsa wood because there are parts of the country like Santo Domingo de Los Tsachilas where the balsa tree forests are disappearing.

Lately, Ecuador exports huge quantities of balsa wood to China and not only to the States and Western Europe. The use of balsa wood is growing more each day, and the need of the international wood industries grows too. 

If you want to get more familiar with the balsa culture in Ecuador, you to get more familiar with the balsa culture in Ecuador, you can visit this magnificent country and go to the regions of Guayas, Los Rios, Manabi, and Cotopaxi. Visit some of the biggest balsa plantations and factories, and order your balsa logs at affordable prices.

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Stef Zisovska is a blogger and an article writer from Macedonia, currently living in Cuenca, Ecuador. She speaks five languages, loves hiking, climbing, and exploring nature. A true outdoorsy person, an animal lover, and hiking enthusiast. 

For more information contact at stefanijazisovska -at-