This tree may be too beautiful for its own good. The stunning Madagascar rosewood, also known as bois de rose or Dalbergia maritima, has heartwood in a deep, lustrous red that takes polish astoundingly well and holds up for decades. Like other rosewoods, Madagascar rosewood is strong, heavy and beautiful, making it ideal for a variety of furnishings, instruments and more — and the trade in its wood may just be driving it to the brink of extinction.
In 2009, Madagascar fell to a military coup, and the subsequent disorder paved the way to a massive trade in rosewood and related products. Despite the comparative rarity and value of the wood, the government was poorly equipped to protect natural resources, even within the boundaries of UNESCO Heritage Sites, and consequently, illegal logging began to flourish. Even after a ban on exports in 2010, rosewood is freely moved out of the country, so blatantly that visiting journalists and ecologists have no trouble finding examples of rosewood for sale.
Tamasin Ford, writing for the BBC, notes that the country hosts a “rosewood mafia” of loggers and connected profiteers who harvest the wood and ship it out of the country in the form of unfinished logs and finished products alike. The trade is so open that Ford was offered a number of rosewood products during his visit, and while no one would admit that their products had been harvested after the ban, it was quite evident that many of the products he was looking at were brand new. Traveling to Cap Est, a coastal village that has become a rosewood boomtown, he witnessed the trunks of huge, and ancient, trees being bundled for sale and transit.
Madagascar rosewood is particularly prized thanks to its rich, rosy hue and strength. However, like many other flora and fauna on Madagascar, it’s also ecologically delicate. Thanks to the fact that it evolved in a unique and distinctive island climate, it’s found nowhere else in the world, which makes conservation critical to avoid losing wild stocks forever. Like other hardwoods, it also grows slowly, and can take centuries to mature (and reach the size preferred by loggers). The rapacious logging industry is rapidly outstripping the capacity of rosewood stocks to recover, posing serious risks to the continued survival of rosewood stocks.
With a new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, about to take up the reins, it may be time for radical reforms in Madagascar to put a check on the trade in illegal rosewood. However, it will be an uphill battle. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits on a daily basis, people involved in the trade have a powerful incentive to continue illegally logging, processing and selling rosewood — and in a nation where corruption and difficulty with providing even basic government services are perennial problems, it may be very difficult to put the brakes on. Outside help from conservation organizations could be required, but may be difficult to coordinate unless the government is willing and able to accept aid.
An antique rosewood trivet still shows the rich rosy hue this wood is famous for. Photo credit: Grannies Kitchen.