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A Future for Mahogany

Mahogany is a rare and beautiful timber that has been logged almost to extinction in many countries. Illegal loggers are driving ever deeper into South American forests in their search for the highly prized, dark red wood, sometimes bringing with them disease, slavery and violence.

Amongst the frenzy of unsustainable logging, some groups are trying to secure the future of mahogany. In November, 2003, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, required producer countries to define sustainable rates of harvest and limit their exports to that amount of mahogany timber. Aware of the threats to the species, US and European countries have rejected Brazilian mahogany exported under fraudulent permits. The Brazilian government now has actually suspended all mahogany logging.

At the same time, local people are taking their own actions. "Forest owners are experimenting with ways to manage natural forests to guarantee the future of this magnificent wood," said CIFOR's Laura Snook, who has been studying mahogany in the region for many years. Foresters and forest owners in Mexico have delineated production forests and annual cutting areas, defined annual harvests based on inventories, applied management plans and planted mahogany seedlings to enrich the forest. These environmentally and economically sustainable techniques are providing livelihoods to thousands of rural people while conserving hundreds of thousands of hectares of tropical forests.

Forest researchers are also joining together to find ways to provide mahogany producers with technologies and strategies to ensure the survival of mahogany, their tropical forest homelands and the rural livelihoods they provide. An international workshop on sustaining mahogany, sponsored by CIFOR, in Chetumal, Mexico in November 2003 built on the results of seven years of collaborative research in Mexico and Belize to develop strategies to ensure that mahogany can be harvested and regenerated to continue to provide livelihoods for rural workers and their families.

Snook has worked for years on silvicultural management of natural forests in the Maya Forest region. In Mexico, she and fellow researchers Luisa Camara-Cabrales and Patricia Negreros-Castillo, have collaborated with Victoria Santos, the forester responsible for managing hundreds of thousands of hectares of community forests for the Organización de Ejidos Productores Forestales de la Zona Maya. In Belize, Snook has worked with the Programme for Belize, an NGO that manages 4% of the land area of the country, and with a series of graduate students from around the world, including Marcia Toledo-Sotillo of Peru. Many of the conclusions from the 10 studies they've carried out provide essential foundations for the sustainable management of mahogany forests.

Attendees at the workshop learned that research had confirmed the anecdotal observations of foresters, that mahogany seedlings do not survive under the forest canopy, along skidtrails or in small gaps produced by felling trees. "Mahogany trees regenerate and grow best in clearings measuring thousands of square meters that are opened by slash and burn agriculture, fires or machinery," said Snook. Foresters are now making efforts to harvest multiple-species to create similar openings large enough to favour regeneration.

"We also found that mahogany trees with diameters greater than 75 cm should be retained as seed sources," said Camara-Cabrales. "They produce much more seed than smaller diameter trees and produce seeds more consistently."

The foresters, government agencies, and forestland owners who participated in the meeting also made recommendations on governance and policy. For example, that management of the nearly one million ha of natural forests in the region should be given more weight in the action plans of state governments and other agencies, along with their support to plantations, reforestation and agriculture. Greater collaboration among the different agencies whose actions affect forests would also make sustainable forest management a better land use option. For example, support for cattle ranching and agriculture should be designed not to undermine forestry activities. In addition, issuing export permits locally rather than from Mexico City would reduce the disincentives for local producers to export mahogany, for the higher returns available on the international market.

"Industrial logging has exhausted much of Latin America's accessible mahogany," said Snook. "But the communities of Mexico are learning how to bring the mahogany back." If mahogany producers in Brazil, Peru and elsewhere pay attention to both CITES and the technologies and strategies from the Chetumal workshop, not only the species will benefit, but also those who depend on its commercial production. Ultimately, this will favour both the conservation of their tropical forest homelands and sustainable livelihoods for the people who depend on them.

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