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Surging Chinese demand for rosewood is ruining forests across southern Asia

We are inclined to think that trees are a renewable natural resource. Yet precious hardwood trees have already been almost completely logged out from many countries across the tropics. Myanmar is the latest…

A rose by any other name. Erik Patel, CC BY-SA

We are inclined to think that trees are a renewable natural resource. Yet precious hardwood trees have already been almost completely logged out from many countries across the tropics. Myanmar is the latest country to experience the insatiable demand for its precious rosewood.

Rosewood, also known as bois de rose, is an umbrella term for a whole group of tropical timber species, mostly from the genus Dalbergia, Pterocarpus, Diospyros, and Milletia, which all have a dark red hue and high quality timber in common. The vast majority of rosewood is imported to China where it’s fashioned into luxurious, highly-priced ornamental furniture in the Ming and Quing dynasty style.

Myanmar, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Asia, has also several species of rosewood highly prized by the Chinese furniture trade. Even though Myanmar’s forest and hardwood stocks have been diminishing for several decades already (less than 10% of the land is now forested, the rosewood logging and smuggling has increased to an unprecedented level in the last three years.

In 2013 alone, Myanmar exported 237,000m3 of rosewood to China, triple the volume of the previous year. This amounts to one thirteenth of the estimated remaining rosewood stock of Myanmar – at current logging rates, Myanmar’s forests will have been stripped of rosewood in just 13 years.

As Chinese hunger for the luxuriant, dark red timber grows and spreads across the greater Mekong region, rosewood species might face not only commercial extinction, but also final, biological extinction.

It is hardly just the loss of a few species that is at stake. Forest overexploited for timber is likely to lose many species of animals, its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere deteriorates, and it is more likely to experience fires. Logging also brings about more hunting and increases the chances of complete deforestation.

In Myanmar illegal logging also brings with it a raft of socioeconomic problems. Loggers undertake long and dangerous scouting expeditions into the forest, or take the risk of timber smuggling in conflict-ridden border regions, such as Kachin at the border with Yunnan province, China – one of the main rosewood smuggling routes. Not every logger returns from these expeditions. Besides the fact that logging in the tropics is rated as one of the most dangerous jobs, there is in Myanmar an added danger of being shot in a timber-related conflict. Moreover, loggers are often rewarded by various stimulating drugs.

So why isn’t Myanmar establishing commercial rosewood plantations? Some tropical timber can indeed be mass-produced in plantations, especially faster growing species such as rubberwood, eucalyptus, or teak. But the extremely slow growing, high density rosewood trees take many decades to grow to a commercially viable size, requiring several generations of tree planters to wait for the profit. Such long-term investment is commendable, but unlikely in a conflict-ridden, poor country like Myanmar, with unstable land tenure and an explosive political climate.

Act now or lose it

It is in Myanmar’s interest to completely stop the illegal logging and export of rosewood to China. As almost all processing of Burmese rosewood is done in China, no value is added in Myanmar. Worse still, almost no tax is generated: Myanmar lost an estimated US$6 billion through illegal logging between 2013 and 2014. Instead of the desperately needed cash for healthcare, education, and environmental protection, laundered rosewood money goes to corrupt officials and government cronies.

If Myanmar wants to escape its rosewood crisis with at least some viable rosewood populations left, it should take lessons from other countries that have already undergone the “rosewood massacre”. On April 1 this year, the Myanmar government put in place a ban on raw timber export, but without enforcement this cannot be effective. Myanmar has to show its dedication to a permanent, non-negotiable, exception-free rosewood export ban. In Madagascar, we have an example of how temporary and unclear bans only lead to a more dynamic and thriving rosewood black market. During periods of temporary bans, illegal rosewood logging continues, and traders simply accumulate rosewood stockpiles. Meanwhile, rosewood prices go up, stimulating even bigger bouts of logging when the ban is lifted.

However, even an effective national ban on rosewood export might not be enough to stop the rosewood crisis in Myanmar. In some cases, a national export ban caused China’s rosewood appetite to shift to a new country. In other cases, for example Vietnam, China simply grabbed the opportunity of cheaper labour and moved its basic rosewood processing to Vietnam, effectively circumventing the raw timber export ban. This may bring some economic benefit to Vietnam, but does nothing to alleviate the pressure on the forests.

Of the 33 species that pass China’s strict hongmu quality standards for rosewood, more than a third is already deemed vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened species and six are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The convention binds signatory countries to regulate or stop trade in the listed species, depending on the degree of protection.

Whereas China offers high levels of support to protect its growing rosewood industry, for customers and businesses, it appears to have a complete lack of interest in regulating the industry’s environmental impact or improving its sustainability. Europe, the US and Australia all tightened their regulations regarding rosewood import in recent years. But with Chinese domestic demand growing significantly since 2011, only stricter regulations in China can save Myanmar’s rosewood forests.