Elisa Aragon, co-founder of Nelixia

With its very dry subtropical climate, the forest of the Paraguayan Chaco region, a real haven for biodiversity, is the only area that shelters Bulnesia sarmientoi. But since Paraguay allowed virgin forest land to be turned into pasture for cattle, this tall tree with very dense wood has been massively cut.

Unfortunately, the roots are also cut, which prevents the trees from regenerating, whereas one should wait for 30 years before extracting them,” explains Elisa Aragon, co-founder of Nelixia, with Jean-Marie Maizener. “As a matter of fact, it is very tricky to replant cuttings, because guaiac wood grows in clusters on veins of salt. It is actually impossible to determine beforehand whether the soil conditions will be adapted to its growth or not,” she adds. So, to encourage local players to implement sustainable exploitation methods, CITES took action in 2011, classifying guaiacwood as a “species whose exploitation must be regulated in order to keep it out of danger”.

Sustainable forest management

To foster concrete action, CITES has blocked the import of guaiac wood several times since 2015, including last March. As a matter of fact, for the past two years, Nelixia has worked on new management plans for the forest of Chaco in order to set up an ecoresponsible production chain. “We can evolve and act differently, for example by focusing on new exploitation methods that better preserve the forest’s ecosystem”, says Elisa Aragon.

With two production sites in Guatemala and Honduras, Nelixia has acquired genuine expertise in developing sustainable raw material chains. As part of this project, the company has just opened a production site in Paraguay.

This inauguration completes the implementation of management plans for the forest of Chaco approved by INFONA (national forestry office). Nelixia first convinced land owners that a non-exploited forest could actually be profitable. Then, they had to make an accurate inventory of the forest to divide it into parcels and determine a quantity of exploitable guaiac wood: annual cutting units from which wood would be extracted over a minimum period of 20 years. This method prevents the roots from being cut, so that the resource is never exhausted.

Since machines are banned, tree extraction is mainly carried out by hand, from cutting to loading timber in vehicles, which are also prohibited around the forest.

Ultimately, these plans are aimed to take only a small number of trees per hectare using responsible methods. Today, Nelixia manages almost 5,000 hectares and intends to “reach 20,000 by 2025 to make sure the ingredient remains out of danger in the long run,” says Jean-Marie Maizener.

Widely used material

Thanks to this new exploitation method, in 2021, Nelixia will be able to distribute a “responsible”, soon-to-be-certified guaiac essential oil on the market, provided the CITES import ban is lifted in the following weeks. Right now, Nelixia has 1,800 tonnes of cut wood ready to be distilled, which makes about 70 tonnes of essential oil. Since the guaiac essence is widely used, because it is cheap, this sustainable production chain would prevent thousands of perfumes from being reformulated.

Nelixia’s expertise is based on several assets, including experienced partners, like the Paraguaya Foundation, a pioneer NGO in this field, since they have taken action since 1985. For example, they created the very efficient “stoplight” programme aimed to stop poverty, in particular by setting up farming schools to train rural entrepreneurs, whose education is financed by their own business. That is why Nelixia established their distillery near a farming school: the idea was to create new jobs thanks to guaiac oil production.

Although they are fully involved in developing a responsible, sustainable guaiac production chain, Nelixia does not aim to hold a monopoly. “It is likely these two exploitation methods will coexist for some time, but we do hope to encourage and democratize these management plans to create a sustainable guaiac wood sourcing chain,” explains Elisa Aragon.