Brazil Allows Sustainable Mahogany Harvest

By André Muggiati

BRASILIA, Brazil, June 24, 2003 (ENS) - Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva has established new rules for the harvest and marketing of mahogany. According to the new decision, announced earlier this month, it will be possible to extract this lucrative species with a sustainable management plan.

The illegally logged mahogany timber that has been confiscated and is stored by the government will be sold on the international market. The money raised will be used in conservation projects.

Mahogany is the most valuable and sought after wood in Amazonia. The species is worth more than US$1,600 per cubic meter on the international market and the species, Swietenia macrophylla, is now at risk of extinction.

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A Brazilian mahogany tree Swietenia macrophylla (Photos courtesy Greenpeace)
In 1998, the Brazilian government banned the extraction of mahogany for two years. Last year it was included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which regulates the species considered at risk of extinction or need special protection.

Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in these species must be authorized by the granting of an export permit.

With the new decision, it will be possible to adopt management plans for the harvest of mahogany starting next July. The exploitation of the species due to deforestation is still not allowed.

Intended to protect the increasingly rare trees, the restrictions on mahogany exploitation since 1998 instead have stimulated the illegal trade in this timber.

High quality mahogany is only found in pristine areas of rainforest, and so "the illegal mahogany trade is directly responsible for the destruction of these areas as it leaves behind a network of roads and trails that other loggers can use to access the remaining forest," according to a 2001 Greenpeace report documenting the extent of illegal mahogany logging in Brazil. As a result of this report, the Brazilian government suspended all mahogany logging and transport.

Mahogany began to be harvested on a commercial scale in the Amazon in the 1960s, after its similar species Swietenia mahogany and S. humilis had been almost extinguished in Mexico and Central America.

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Sawmill cuts mahogany logs in Pará state in the Brazilian Amazon.
Since then, some four million cubic meters of mahogany timber have been exported by Brazil, of which some 75 percent has gone to the United States and the United Kingdom, according to research by Imazon (Man and Environment Research Institute), of Belém.

Another 1.7 million cubic meters have been sold in the Brazilian local market. This means that an average of two million trees have been cut during this 40 year period.

The high value of mahogany timber helps to explain such destruction. A cubic meter is worth from US$1,200 to US$1,600 on the international market, where it is known as green gold. By contrast, in the Amazon the profiteers pay around US$20 per tree to the indigenous people who cut them down.

For some nongovernmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth Amazonia, the new government measurepoints to the right way to handle the green gold rush.

“It needs strong rules and measures for its implementation, to guarantee that it is exploited in a sustainable way,” says Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth Amazonia.

The other measure, which allows the government to sell the illegal timber to finance conservation projects will be valid only for the timber which has already been confiscated. It will not be valid for the timber confiscated from now on, especially because international agreements will not allow such financing after November 2003.