China’s fascination with rosewood furniture dates back thousands of years. With its red color attributed to luck, rosewood furniture is considered a prized cultural investment handed down over generations. But after wiping out its rosewood supply during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the country is now turning to the last standing forests in Lower Mekong countries for their rosewood supply. Can we save rosewood from extinction in the Lower Mekong, while also preserving Chinese cultural legacy?
Demand for rosewood is still growing
“We have a lot of rosewood furniture in our old house passed on by the older generation. I love the color and durability of it; it lasts generations. I would definitely like to decorate my new home with some rosewood furniture. Not only does it add aesthetic and cultural value to my home, but it also signifies economic wealth and status,” said a young Chinese man. For him, rosewood is both practical and cultural, as it is for many Chinese people.
Results of the 2022 Knowledge, Attitude, Practices survey on forest crime in China (KAP survey) revealed that 9 out 10 consumers intend to buy rosewood furniture in the next year, up by 20 percent from the previous year. As the demand for rosewood continue to rise, rosewood furniture industries are becoming more dominant. Xianyou, for example, a county in Fujian province in southern China, is one of three main areas for producing rosewood furniture. The number of rosewood companies in Xianyou soared by up to 40 percent in 2010, reaching its peak in 2020, with about 3,670 registered enterprises producing rosewood furniture.
The high demand for rosewood furniture has also translated to higher prices. Rosewood logs are worth tens of thousands of dollars per cubic metre, making it highly attractive for illegal loggers and traders in the Mekong region. The illegal cutting of rosewood has knock-on effects and irreversibly damages forest ecosystems and nearby forest communities.
"Twenty years ago, we still have a lot of huge rosewood trees in our forests. Now, we only have thinner, smaller rosewood trees - but even these are being cut down illegally by loggers. Each tree costs between 100-200 USD, making it very attractive to loggers. It is very, very difficult to protect rosewood," said a forest ranger in Cambodia.
In response, China has strengthened its forest law, Article 65, to crack down on the illegal timber trade, particularly rosewood. The law also includes a ban on buying, transporting and processing illegally sourced timber, requiring processing companies to establish a data record of raw materials and products.
The global rosewood trade has also tightened as producer countries have issued various policies restricting the harvesting and trade of rosewood species, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa. In 2017, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed all types of rosewood as Appendix II, prohibiting trade except in the rare cases in which a national CITES authority has issued permits. Currently, Lao PDR and Cambodia are working to have permits issued.
These additional controls have led to decline in the volume of rosewood imports, further increasing the price per tonne. The increasing price of rosewood is one of the primary factors impeding the development of rosewood enterprises in China, hindering their abilities to transition to sustainable approaches.
Saving rosewood, one piece of furniture at a time
China’s government today is beginning to place greater importance on environmental protection and promoting greener, more sustainable lifestyles. Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the products they buy, including furniture. According to the KAP survey, about 80 percent of Chinese consumers are aware of the concept of “sustainable purchasing,” compared with 20 to 40 percent in the Lower Mekong countries. Furthermore, Chinese attitudes toward rosewood furniture may finally be changing.
The changing attitudes of Chinese consumers can provide the much-needed impetus for traditional Chinese furniture ‘Hongmu’ to evolve. Furniture makers and designers can seize this opportunity to fuse traditional Chinese style with contemporary aesthetics, and to fuse rare tree species, like rosewood, with environmentally friendly alternatives. An initiative led by UN-REDD on Sustainable Forest Trade in the Lower Mekong (UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative) works to green the supply chain for rosewood and other timber products and to promote sustainable forest trade with China.
“Our initiative is unique in that we not only work with governments to tighten laws against illegal trade, but increasingly, we focus on small- and medium-sized timber enterprises in the Lower Mekong to help them access sustainable supply chains. We do this through building entrepreneurial skills and capacities based on market research, product development and certification, among other things,” said Alexis Corblin, a coordinator of the UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative and a technical expert on forests and climate at UNEP.
Strengthening governance is just one piece of the puzzle in the fight against the illegal rosewood trade. Protecting rosewood will only be possible if there is a change in the attitudes and behavior of enterprises, traders and consumers of rosewood furniture. For this reason, the UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative is also running a public campaign that calls on Chinese consumers to protect rosewood by purchasing second-hand products or shifting to more sustainable alternatives. It also challenges furniture makers to come up with new furniture designs that blend traditional style with sustainable sources.
If the campaign is successful, it may help usher in a future where rosewood flourishes both in the region’s forests and in the cultural legacy of Chinese people.
***This story is part of a three-article series tracing the origins of rosewood from Lower Mekong forests to furniture industries to consumer homes in China. To find out more about the campaign, visit: https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/forestforlife