Asian Scientist Magazine (Sep. 22, 2022) – In the heart of lush forests lies a coveted treasure that has captivated the world with its rich, deep tones and timeless beauty: rosewood. Timber from the rosewood tree has been used to make high-value furniture and iconic guitars that have graced the hands of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. But there is a dark vein of illegal logging that stains the industry. Rosewoods have been the biggest victim of the global illegal wildlife trade since 2005.
Rosewood logging poses a serious threat wherever it occurs, such as drying out forests and leaving them vulnerable to desertification and forest fires in West Africa. In some instances, loggers even extract the roots of rosewood trees for maximum profit, which can disrupt root systems and leave nearby communities vulnerable to erosion-related hazards.
However, the solution is not as simple as prohibiting rosewood trade. Many countries have a clear economic dependence on rosewood—illegal timber trade in Asia Pacific alone is worth an estimated US$11 billion a year, contributing to roughly 30 percent of the total regional trade in wood products.
Logging lockdown: Existing policy solutions
Known as the “Ivory of the Forest”, 250 species of rosewood trees are currently protected under the 2016 resolution of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). To date, 183 out of 195 countries worldwide are party to the international treaty, but it is up to the nations themselves to enforce legislations.
The demand for rosewood stems primarily from China. In 2014, the industry peaked at roughly US$26 billion. In 2020, despite overall demand falling to a fifth of what it was in 2014, the dwindling availability of the critically endangered Asian rosewoods has shifted trade to new species in Africa. Still, most of China’s rosewood imports in 2020 were made up of protected species listed on CITES.
Some countries have laws that protect select species of rosewood. For instance, the Cambodian government banned the harvesting and export of Siamese rosewood in 2013. In 2007, Vietnam also prohibited the individual dispatching and storing of the same Siamese rosewood.
Yet, the penalties of breaking such laws may not always deter illegal loggers. In China, the laws and regulations surrounding illegal rosewood logging are broad, making it difficult for enforcement agencies to implement. Additionally, industry standards may not cover the whole supply chain, making it difficult to track the sources of rosewood.
A solution rooted in seeds
The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) sought to restore the critically endangered rosewoods by helping farmers transition into the sustainable production of rosewood seeds and seedlings, a kilogram of which may be worth up to US$250. The work was designed and implemented in close collaboration with national research agencies, namely the Institute of Forest and Wildlife Research of Cambodia as well as the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute of Laos.
“In Cambodia, we worked with a farmer who had set up a small nursery area. He found out that by producing and selling these seedlings, he could actually make quite a lot of money. And so, it became his main business,” said Dr Riina Jalonen, a scientist at the Alliance.
But both seed quality and quantity remain a challenge. Extensive logging has resulted in the disappearance of seed trees from natural landscapes. Much genetic diversity of rosewoods—which is critical to the resilience of rosewood populations in the wild—have also been lost due to population decline, Jalonen explained.
Using their research, the Alliance and its partners help to train farmers to successfully produce seedlings while maintaining the genetic diversity that is necessary for the good growth and adaptability of the seedlings.
“Establishing new seed sources with farmers and paying attention to the genetic diversity of the material will help ensure that suitable seed is available for different environments in future”, said Jalonen. Farmers, companies and other land users who are planting rosewood must understand that the quality of the material matters for the long term survival, growth, and resilience of the industry.
Branching out for seed availability
The Alliance has embarked on a new project to assess if enough seed sources of native species remain to implement national restoration targets in Asian countries.
“We need to raise awareness among restoration practitioners and policy-makers that seed availability needs improving before restoration targets can happen,” Jalonen said.
Currently implemented in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the project identifies areas where restoration is needed, but where genetically diverse seed sources are lacking. It matches environmental conditions on restoration target areas with suitably adapted seed sources which help ensure seedlings survive and thrive. Newly developed seed zone maps and registries of seed sources will help restoration practitioners select and find suitable seeds and seedlings for their project needs and site contexts.
Ultimately, it is difficult for individual consumers to trace the origin of the wood used to make their furniture. Advancing sustainability then requires developing and enforcing regulatory frameworks and mechanisms to incentivize companies towards more sustainable sourcing and production of wood products, Jalonen told Asian Scientist.
Images: Alliance Bioversity-CIAT
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