‘Rosewood’ explores China’s philosophy of ecological protection as it goes global

China wants to allow sustainable cultivation of threatened species, in contrast to the Western model of banning trade, explains Annah Lake Zhu in a provocative book.

Dong Yang is a city known for its intricate rosewood carvings using traditional methods that involves tediously chipping away wood blocks using handmade tools. Image: Yi Chen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In her new book, Rosewood, Annah Lake Zhu explores the difference between the prevailing Western approach to protecting endangered species, which advocates trade bans and other protections, and the Chinese one, which promotes cultivation and sustainable use.

Should conservation try and hit the pause button on the decline in biodiversity, or take a proactive role in restoring ecosystems? In other words, should it preserve the remaining individuals of endangered species or try to replenish them by rearing or planting afresh on a large scale?

Drawing on her fieldwork in Madagascar and China, Zhu advocates for a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of China’s view on endangered species and natural resources more broadly. Her book will no doubt be controversial, but it is an important and necessary contribution.

China’s cultural renaissance and the rosewood trade

Rosewood, known as hongmu in China, refers to 33 species of highly expensive tropical hardwoods, many of which are endangered. Sought after in China for crafting into antique-style furniture and contemporary art, rosewood is the world’s most trafficked group of endangered species by value.

Between the boom years of 2005 and 2014, seizures of rosewood were worth more than those of elephant ivory, rhino horn and big cats combined, Zhu explained in a 2019 academic article.

In 2014, the industry in China was worth up to US$26 billion, with rosewood imports having grown an average of 180 per cent per year between 2005 and 2013. Much of this growth stemmed from Africa, where rosewood exports increased 700 per cent from 2010 to 2015.

Rather than exaggerating the scarcity of the wood through trade restrictions and logging prohibitions, conservation policies might be more effective in focusing on reforestation and other sustainable forestry activities.

Annah Lake Zhu, assistant professor, Wageningen University Environmental Policy Group

According to Zhu, the demand for rosewood is closely linked to the historical and cultural renaissance China is undergoing. Rosewood, writes Zhu, is a symbol of the fall and rise of the country on the global stage in the modern era.

“The story of rosewood – crafted for emperors centuries ago, violently confiscated from families within living memory during the Cultural Revolution, and now selling for millions in Chinese timber markets – is quite simply the story of China,” she writes. “Its ups and downs – its original grandeur, momentary devaluation, and contemporary revitalisation – mirror those of the country writ large.”

Zhu observes that the common Western interpretation of Chinese demand for rosewood and other endangered species in terms of “exotic tastes” and “conspicuous consumption” fails to account for the deep cultural meaning vested in the wood and the products sculpted out of it. It also, Zhu writes, “invariably channels Western anxieties about the growing economic and geopolitical power of Asia.”

For the contemporary Chinese consumer, rosewood furniture in the classical style signifies the cultural sophistication of a nation yet to be appropriately accepted by the global community – a symbolism poorly understood outside of China. This also helps to explain why so many wildlife consumption reduction campaigns, including on rosewood, are viewed in China as an attack on Chinese culture.

But, much as this contextualised understanding of the demand for rosewood is important, it remains true that it is driving many of these slow-growing tree species closer and closer to extinction. 

And, according to scientists, the problem of rosewood logging runs deeper than rare trees. For instance, in West Africa, felling rosewood can dry out forests and leave them vulnerable to fires and desertification. Meanwhile in Madagascar, tall rosewoods serve as key nesting areas for endemic animals such as ruffed lemurs.

Rethinking conservation

Zhu positions herself as a neutral observer, declaring in the introduction that her goal “is not to legitimate a trade that contributes to the decline of endangered species but rather to foster a better understanding of it.” That being said, she appears to side with the view that it is time the world embraced China’s stance of not banning the use of rosewood but instead embarking on a drive to plant rosewood trees. (Plantations exist in southern China and Madagascar, and China has exported the model to Cambodia and Laos too, she shows us.)

Zhu argues that there is a growing environmentalism in China that is distinct from the Western variety. As this relates to rosewood conservation, she observes that “rather than exaggerating the scarcity of the wood through trade restrictions and logging prohibitions, conservation policies might be more effective in focusing on reforestation and other sustainable forestry activities.”

Zhu is of the view that bans on trade in and logging of rosewood should be lifted. She believes the global community should emulate China’s approach, in which the establishment of rosewood plantations offers an alternative to help preserve species and meet future demand.

The author endorses what she describes as a “participatory approach” to conservation – practised in some parts of Madagascar and Africa – which encourages community involvement in managing forests alongside forest administrations and non-governmental organisations.

For Zhu, prohibiting trade in rosewood while such huge demand exists actually serves to increase prices while driving the trade underground. Rosewood from Madagascar, she notes, “was worth next to nothing in China in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was valued at US$60,000 per ton by 2013”.

That was the year the ban on trade and trafficking of the wood was at its peak following the addition of a number of more commonly traded rosewood species to the list of those banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Conservation campaigns aiming to reduce Chinese demand for endangered species are fighting an uphill battle. Instead, perhaps the solution lies in bringing Chinese conservation approaches into the governance of rosewood plantations, writes Zhu. She also points to African countries’ contestation of the current conservation regime.

For example, she cites proposals put forward by five southern African nations at the 2019 meeting of CITES to relax restrictions on the ivory and rhino horn trade. They argued that “CITES discards proven, working conservation models in favour of ideologically driven anti-use and anti-trade models… dictated largely by Western non-state actors who have no experience with, responsibility for, or ownership over wildlife resources.”

Noticeably – and in this writer’s opinion, somewhat troublingly – Zhu’s book largely sees rosewood through the lens of its cultural and economic value at the expense of the tropical trees’ intrinsic value. The author emphasises that “rosewood plantations are more about propagating the species for future use than preserving it naturally in the wild” and also that the plantations are not intended to recreate pristine forests. But the book overlooks the point that man-made forests do not give trees a chance to grow beyond commercial purposes and reach their full lifespans.

Towards ‘global environmentalism’?

Zhu’s book issues a call to the global conservation community to start reflecting on how rosewood might provide us with an example not only of Chinese demand for endangered species, but also the country’s efforts to preserve these resources for sustainable usage in the coming century.

It is also a call for dialogue towards what Zhu dubs a “global environmentalism of the twenty-first century”. This will involve a “decentering” of the West and, she asserts, “will necessarily emerge through negotiating and reconciling Chinese and Western approaches to the environment,” as well as the approaches of African governments.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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