Mahogany Tree's Survival in Doubt Due to U.S. Demand

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 28, 2000 (ENS) - Without increased import tariffs, consumer education and international protection, one of South America's biggest trees will become endangered, in turn harming the plant and animal species it supports, said a report released Wednesday.

Demand in the United States for big leaf mahogany threatens some of the world's most biologically diverse Amazonian rainforests, according to the report from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring program of World Wildlife Fund and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.


A star floor pattern made from several woods including mahogany by Thompson Mahogany Company of Philadelphia. The tropical hardwood importer was recently awarded a SmartWood Chain of Custody Certification, approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. (Photos courtesy Thompson Mahogany Company)
"Mahogany is often considered the Rolls Royce of trees, but if we aren't careful, it may become the Edsel - commercially unviable and threatened with extinction," said Chris Robbins, author of "Mahogany Matters: The U.S. Market for Big Leafed Mahogany and its Implications for the Conservation of the Species."

"All of the data we analyzed point to a not too distant future in which we could harvest big leafed mahogany out of commercial existence," said Robbins.

Big leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is a tropical tree species whose range extends through 13 Latin American countries, from Brazil and Bolivia to Mexico. The largest area of naturally occurring mahogany is in the Brazilian rainforests of the Amazon basin.

The tree is distributed sparsely throughout the forest, occurring either as single trees or in small clusters. Densities of more than four to eight trees per hectare are rarely found naturally. Overall density of intermediate sized trees of this species is rarely more then one tree per hectare.

The big leaf mahogany tree takes about 100 years to mature and is a magnificent deciduous timber tree with an umbrella shaped crown reaching 35 to 40 meters (114 to 130 feet) tall, often emerging above the dense rainforest canopy.

It is known for its incredible beauty and durability, its distinctive grain, and smoothness and patina found in no other wood. Like other species of mahogany, it is used for high class furniture, fine joinery and panelling.

But its economic value pales compared to its ecological worth, argue environmentalists, who point to the multitude of plant and animal species it supports, as well as the healthy local economies it sustains.


The pinwheel effect, produced by using different hardwoods including mahogany.
Demand has exhausted Caribbean mahogany, which is now considered endangered, and supplies in Central America are dwindling. As the tree disappears from these areas, so harvesting has increased in the tropical forests of Peru and Brazil, some of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world.

Unless demand is checked, big leafed mahogany could disappear, too, warns Robbins. If this happens, the incentives for sustainable management of high value timber species will be lost.

Roads designed for felling high value trees like mahogany allow access to migrating farmers who convert the forests to farmland, increasing the loss of plant and animal species.

In Peru, Robbins says, the distance from mahogany forests to mills is increasing, indicating that forests are being "mined, not managed."

Efforts to regulate and protect big leaf mahogany without actually outlawing trade have proved fruitless. Three attempts to have the species listed on Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) failed in the 1990s.

CITES is an international mechanism for the maintenance of biodiversity through the regulation of international trade of wild species. A listing of mahogany on Appendix II would force exporting countries to demonstrate that exported mahogany had been obtained sustainably and legally.

Two other closely related mahogany species, Swietenia humilis and Swietenia mahagoni, were included in Appendix II at previous CITES conferences, but only Swietenia macrophylla now plays a significant role in international trade.

Several environmental groups contend that most mahogany in Latin America is harvested illegally. In 1997, they obtained some documentary evidence to back this claim.

During CITES 10th biannual meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe in June 1997, Brazilian newspaper "O Liberal," obtained a leaked report from the Brazilian government's own intelligence agency, the Secretariat for Strategic Affairs, confirming what groups like Friends of the Earth had always claimed, that 80 percent of timber extracted from the Brazilian Amazon comes from illegal sources.

In a secret ballot at the Harare meeting, 67 countries voted in favor of listing big leaf mahogany on Appendix II but 45 were opposed. The protective measure, which was backed by the U.S. and Bolivia, fell short of the requisite two-thirds majority by eight votes.

At the 1994 CITES conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a similar proposal fell six votes shy of passage.


Hardwood flooring made from mahogany.
According to Friends of the Earth, the most vigorous opposition to the proposal to protect big leafed mahogany was conducted by the International Wood Products Association of the U.S., along with trade representatives from Bolivia, Brazil and the African Timber Organization.

Robbins' report maintains that a CITES listing is integral to the solutions for saving big leaf mahogany. He also recommends building greater awareness of sustainably managed forests among consumers, importers and governments so that they will demand and buy mahogany products that are certified environmentally friendly by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The council is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature, it was founded in 1993 by a diverse group of representatives from environmental and conservation groups, the timber industry, the forestry profession, indigenous peoples' organizations, community forestry groups and forest product certification organizations from 25 countries.

It accredits certifying organizations. They in turn certify forestry organizations that meet FSC developed Principles and Criteria and other specific standards identified at the national and/or regional levels.

Awareness campaigns have been particularly successful in the United Kingdom, the world's second largest importer of mahogany. Friends of the Earth UK's Mahogany is Murder campaign has seen the nation's mahogany imports drop by nearly 70 percent since the campaign's launch in 1992.

Robbins' report calls on the U.S. government to increase import tariffs on minimally processed mahogany from Latin America, which is currently exempt, while lowering or waiving duties on products of non-threatened tree species.

"Big leafed mahogany is a valuable component of many local economies and should continue being harvested," Robbins said. "It simply needs to be done in a more methodical fashion that ensures a long term supply and the survival of threatened and endangered species."

The report found that the United States accounts for 60 percent of the global mahogany trade. In 1998, about 57,000 big leafed mahogany trees were harvested and shipped to the U.S. to supply a booming business in mahogany furniture. That figure represents 57 percent by volume of U.S. imports of tropical hardwood lumber, worth about $56 million.

Thirty nine percent of the big leafed mahogany imported in the the U.S. goes to North Carolina. Mississippi is the next largest importer followed by Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California. Fifty percent of the big leafed mahogany imported into the U.S. comes from Brazil.

To read the full TRAFFIC report, visit