Rethinking Materials: Rosewoods
On a recent lumber trip to a well known craft woods distributor in Chilliwack, I was appalled to see a stack of what was advertised as Brazilian Rosewood for sale. Now, I wouldn't be able to tell you for sure if it was or wasn't Brazilian Rosewood, but it looked just like what I had seen pictures of. And there's good reason for me not to know, it's banned from being shipped outside of Brazil, or crossing any borders internationally at all. Brazilian Rosewood, Dalbergia nigra, was banned nearly 30 years ago and is classified in the 3rd appendix of the CITES list of endangered species.
I picked up the three pound piece with the $1200 price tag and asked where he acquired it. The young guy behind the desk grinned at me and said a man chopped up some of his old furniture and sold it to the lumber dealers. I inspected the wood in my hand with a suspicious eye. Bug holes boring through the surface, checking at each end, dry rot on one corner, smooth on one side with no finish, saw marks on the bottom. More likely than not this was not from a piece of finished furniture. This would most likely have been smuggled illegally - and perhaps harvested illegally as well.
This wood was so heavily and strong fistedly wrought from the Earth not long ago that vast swaths of the Amazon still have not grown back, clearly visible from space. Fragile ecosystems abbhorently raped, tribes and civilizations enslaved or displaced and abandoned. The great destruction of the Amazon conducted initially, and continued today, in search of this fine wood. The results of deforestation are widespread into surrounding ecosystems as well, air quality is reduced and watersheds erode contaminating fresh and saltwater systems.
And don't we care? The ideal and the strong minded and the gracious young woodworkers? Us who find meaning and beauty and divinity in the work of nature? Those of us who have the gaul to scratch things like "The beauty in nature is the standard for which all other art is compared" onto the bottoms of our trinkets, boxes, and chairs? Those of us who love wood so undoubtedly?
Well, not really apparently. In fact, if you read the back issues of Fine Woodworking, in those columns where people write in and rhetorically debate the editors and each other, the majority of woodworkers quite firmly opposed such thinking until about 2001. That's pretty fucking late in the game.
I just finished reading the research essay, "The Madagascar Rosewood Massacre" by Derek Schuurman and Porter P. Lowry II. And it made me truly embarrassed of our trade.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of the lipstick red pastel colours of the hardwood leave the country illegally every year. They are stripped off this island, right out of nature reserves, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and unmapped ecosystems without a thought. Up to 49 variations of this species exist here, or so the government once believed - but no one is sure anymore - they have lost too much.
We must understand that this island is the oldest island on our planet, and with that perhaps the most diverse - with species like the lemur existing only here. But these ecosystems, discovered and yet unfound are being torn down for luxury inlay work.
Recently I purchased some of my own. It is stunning. Madagascar Rosewood has grown quickly in the past decades as a replacement for Brazilian Rosewood. I payed a premium for stormfall lumber believing it to be a superior choice, ecologically:
"Almost annually the Sava region in Madagascar is struck by violent tropical storms. When Cyclone Hudah left 50,000 people homeless in April of 2000, the inevitable result was a marked increase in slash and burn agriculuture, hunting for protected wildlife and food, and intensive illegal harvesting of precious hardwoods."
I guess not. The article goes on in further detail highlighting the government's stated objective of drawing in ecotourism, based on a countrywide model similar to Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the lumber distributors in China place huge pressure on their employees, working at slave wages, to continually find new territory to exploit - and sooner than later there will not be enough flaura or fauna to interact with in a non-extractive manner.
But in March of this past year, one of the greatest protected parklands in Madagascar was shut down in a time of political unrest. The work became too dangerous in the park for the rangers as illegal poaching and logging increased to near riot levels. According to the park managers and watchdog groups, the area affected and surrounding towns operated without lawlessly, plundering the forest for months as wealthy lumber distributors moved to the area from China and directed the local mafia. This coincided with the growing sale and export of bushmeat (ape, gorilla, bonobo, chimpanzee, and orangutan) throughout the country.
But the right actions are taking place. When the 1900 Lacey Act (US) was amended in May of 2008 to include the prevention of illegal logging practices, some household names were quickly brought under the spotlight. Gibson Guitars, as recently as 1 month ago, had their factory in Nashville raided by the feds for using illegally harvested Madagascar Rosewood. Gibson offers FSC certified products, but like many other companies - has come under investigation based on the fact that illegally harvested woods were being sold to the end consumer marketed as green products.
And if all of the documentaries our generation watches teach us anything, it's that these atrocities are usually industry standards.
The other main Rosewood originally from Madagascar is Palissandre. Which was exported in both timber and seed form to Brazil. Once grown it was sold back to France as Palissandre del Rio, a form of what we now know as Brazilian Rosewood.
With a sweaty brow and trembling fingers, a luthier I know stammered, "Buy it!" when I told him of the Brazilian Rosewood in Chilliwack. And it's this chosen ignorance we are riddled with today that will put the fate of species like the orangutan and forests from Borneo to Indonesia and the Amazon on the brink of collapse.
And it largely depends on what we, as woodworkers and homebuilders, decide to produce with.
Dalbergia nigra - Brazilian Rosewood, is the only Rosewood to make that CITES list. Consumers on every level of the chain need to know that all rosewood product sales are an anarchic disruption to valuable ecosystems and cultures, and amount to billions of dollars of irreversible damage every year on a global level. Perhaps much more, it is not quantifiable. If you want it, demand FSC certified products. And remember that plantation grown rosewoods are from slash and burn fields that provide bureaucratic protection for the lumber distributors to harvest those same species from the surrounding virgin forests in the area where they have set up such illegitimate plantations.
Posted by Jeffuardo at 17.12.09