What Is Mahogany? Part 1

Apart from being wood, what is mahogany and why should you be interested? You may be surprised. The modern use of the word mahogany may not necessarily mean what you think it means.

In guitar-making what we regard traditionally as “mahogany” is the timber of only one of 49 genera that belong to the botanical family Meleaceae (Mahogany family.) This genus is called Swietenia, native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. It has three species:

 

S.mahagoni 1. Swietenia mahagoni, traded as CARIBBEAN MAHOGANY, CUBAN MAHOGANY, or WEST INDIAN MAHOGANY. It is the premier species. It is native to southern Florida in the United States and the West Indies; specifically Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bolivia, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, St Barthélemy, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, French St Martin, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Timber from this species was internationally traded (and exploited) for over 400 years and was the first species of mahogany used in the manufacturing of guitars until the 1950’s. It has been commercially extinct since 1947.

 

S.macrophylla2. Swietenia macrophylla, traded as BRAZILLIAN MAHOGANY, HONDURAN MAHOGANY, or BIG LEAF MAHOGANY. It is native to the Atlantic side of Central America as well as much of South America, namely Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. This species replaced Swietenia mahagoni as the main timber species and is a popular tone wood in the manufacture of guitars and other musical instruments, especially by Gibson Guitars Corporation. Since 2003 it has become commercially extinct with the exception of some limited supply from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala, under heavy restrictions.

 

S.humilis3. Swietenia humilis, traded as PACIFIC COAST MAHOGANY or MEXICAN MAHOGANY. It is is native to dry deciduous forests and savannas of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. This species is much smaller than the other two species. There are very few populations left and it is used mainly in local carpentry. There is no official international trade in this wood.

 

Note. All three species are considered “Genuine mahogany” with Swietenia mahagoni originally taking precedence in the classification. The generic term for all species is “AMERICAN MAHOGANY.”

All species are listed on the IUCN RED LIST OF THREATENED SPECIES, with Swietenia mahagoni listed as “endangered” and Swietenia macrophylla and Swietenia humilis listed as “vulnerable.”

What happened?

In simplicity: overlogging and illegal trade over about 85 years has brought all species of Swietenia mahogany to near extinction. Since 1950 Central American populations have suffered a 70-90% decline.

Unfortunately it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the inevitable fate of native Swietenia was fully recognized and specific measures were taken internationally to try and save the resource from future extinction.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between nations to uniformly police threats to the survival of plants and wild life due to human abuse. Formed in 1973 and passed in 1975 there are currently 180 “contracting parties” (nations) on the list today. Each party has their own national legislation which aligns with the agreement. An example is the Lacey Act of the United States which exists to police and control illegal import and export of banned or restricted plants and substances and wild life, effective from 2008.

CITES has three different levels of protection for species, known as Appendices:

  • Appendix I – This appendix represents species that are in the most danger and are considered to be threatened with extinction, and are consequently the most restricted in international trade.
  • Appendix II – This appendix contains species that are at risk in the wild but not necessarily threatened with extinction. Species in this appendix are closely regulated but are typically not as restricted as Appendix I.
  • Appendix III – This appendix contains species that a certain country (contracting party) has voluntarily requested to be regulated in order to help preserve the species in question. Appendix III species regulation is only applicable for the specific party that has requested its inclusion and is therefore much less restrictive than Appendix I or II.

All three species of Swietenia are listed on CITES Appendix II: Swietenia humilis in January 1975, Swietenia mahagoni in November 1992 and Swietenia macrophylla in November 1995.

Efforts to save the resource have become a major project of CITES. Throughout the 2000’s there has been much work done to forward efforts to conserve the resource and to explore alternatives for reforestation and sustainability on a worldwide scale.

Unfortunately, efforts to repopulate mahogany in its native locations have turned out to be largely unsuccessful. There are four major reasons why Swietenia can no longer be re-grown natively:

  • The soil is now depleted and barren.
  • The species is attacked by an aggressive parasitic moth Hypsipyla grandella (common name: mahogany shoot borer) whose larvae bore up through the leading shoots of saplings causing their death or subsequent low branching of the mature tree. Modern Science has not managed to overcome this.
  • Genetic loss means that the current generations of seeds for planting are inferior and/or mutated.
  • Erosion has taken place where large forests have been cleared leaving those areas now uninhabitable.

In order to save Swietenia from impending extinction Authorities were forced to look beyond its native locations to find solutions to the problem.

Attempts in the past to grow Swietenia in Africa resulted in uniform failure and abandonment due to attacks by Hypsipyla robusta, the African equivalent of Hypsipyla grandella.

Europe was not considered as it does not have the right climate to grow it.

It turns out that Asia and the South Pacific are the most successful areas where Swietenia can be grown outside of its native locations.

Following initial trials a number of Asian countries were consulted with and invested in to develop controlled, sustainable and renewable Swietenia mahogany plantations. This started mostly in the 1990’s and was helped along by the 1993 World Bank report entitled “Tropical Hardwood Marketing Strategies for Southeast Asia“. Under nursery conditions attack by Hypsipyla can be successfully controlled with insecticides.

In actual fact, some Asia-Pacific countries had already been growing Swietenia for a very long time!

 

FijiFiji had Swietenia macrophylla introduced originally in 1911 as an ornamental species using seeds from Honduras and Belize. The first mahogany plantations were established by the government in 1935 and then expanded upon throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Mahogany continued to be planted throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Production was corporatized in 1998. There are over 60,000 hectares of mahogany plantations in Fiji today, many over 40 years old and are naturally regenerating. Unlike the rest of the world Hypsipyla does not exist in Fiji. Harvesting began in 2003 and Fiji has since become the major producer and international supplier of new American mahogany today.

 

IndiaIndia had both Swietenia macrophylla and Swietenia mahagoni introduced in 1865 using seeds from West Indies. They were never managed and thereafter became naturalized forests. Some experimental mahogany plantations were planted in 1994 but were unsuccessful due to attacks by Hypsipyla robusta. Today there is no commercial trade and export of American mahogany from India.

 

BangladeshBangladesh had Honduran Swietenia macrophylla introduced in 1872 and as with India it has become naturalized in some places. Since 1993 and especially in the early 2000s the country has become involved in establishing managed plantations of many timber species, including Swietenia macrophylla, however the country endures regular and devastating floods which constantly cause serious damage to the plantations. There are no exports of American mahogany timber from Bangladesh at this time.

 

IndonesiaIndonesia had Swietenia mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla introduced in 1870 using seeds from India. Plantation forests including Swietenia macrophylla were planted from the 1920’s to the 1940’s but it wasn’t until about 1990 that serious plantation development and management began. There are approximately 55,000 hectares of mahogany plantations in Indonesia, including plantations independently developed by smallholders. During the 2000’s Indonesia was a major exporter of American mahogany however this is no longer the case following the clamping down of illegal logging which accounted for an estimated 80% of the Indonesian timber trade. Currently Indonesia has the highest rate of deforestation (unsustainable logging) in the world, overtaking Brazil in 2012.

 

MalaysiaMalaysia had Swietenia mahagoni introduced in 1876 followed by Swietenia macrophylla in 1886 and 1892. Both species were attacked by Hypsipyla robusta and further planting was abandoned. Small experimental plantations of Swietenia macrophylla were included in the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) grounds in 1928 and 1931-1933 using seeds from trees that survived the original plantings. Planting continued in the 1950’s and 1960’s but continued to be unsuccessful due to Hypsipyla attack. Between 1992 and 1993 a further 1,000 hectares of Swietenia macrophylla were planted. Since sustainability reforms in 1999, the Malaysian government has implemented a large overarching forest plantation program targeted to develop 375,000 ha of selected timber plantation species by 2020, however Swietenia is not one of the key species. In 2014 Malaysia ranked #11 in the world for highest dollar value of sawn wood exports, topping all other Asian countries in the rankings.

 

PhillipinesPhilippines had Swietenia macrophylla introduced in 1907 and in 1913 as well as Swietenia mahagoni in 1911, 1913, 1914, 1920 and 1922. It was planted with many other exotic tree species for the purpose of reforestation. Considerable planting of Swietenia macrophylla occurred in the late 1980’s as part of a major afforestation and reforestation project by the Philippine government at that time. By 1993 there were 13,000 hectares of planted Swietenia macrophylla and it would go on to become the third most planted hardwood species thereafter. Further reforestation projects have resulted in 350,000 hectares of planted forests today. Swietenia accounts for approximately 50,000 hectares. As of 2014 wood exports account for 5% of the Philippines global export market and is the country’s third most valuable commodity. Genuine mahogany makes up a small percentage of the trade.

 

Solomon IslandsSolomon Islands first introduced Swietenia macrophylla in plantations in 1978 and continued planting until 1995 when the government privatized the program. During that time over 3,500 hectares were planted. Large scale forestry planting is now done by private companies only and has led to exploitation and illegal logging. China, Vietnam, Japan and India are the major export markets.

 

Sri LankaSri Lanka had Swietenia macrophylla planted in 1897 but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that plantations were consciously established. Then again it wasn’t until the 1990’s that any real significant investment was undertaken to take control of the unmanaged plantations which had since become naturalized forests. Today, there are 7,300 hectares of government-managed and private-sector Swietenia plantations in Sri Lanka.

 

ChinaChina introduced Swietenia mahagoni in the late 1800’s specifically in the regions of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Yunnan. It is cultivated successfully in those regions today. China has 198 million hectares of natural forests, of which 127 million hectares have been put under the administration of reservations since the government launched their Natural Forest Protection Program in 1998. The program implemented a ban on the logging of mature trees. There are 6.5 million hectares of varied hardwood plantations comprising 43% of total timber plantations in the world. By 2017, China will phase out all commercial logging in natural forests. China relies almost entirely on imports of timber and timber products from abroad, particularly Myanmar, Russia and Papua New Guinea. China has become the largest importer of hardwood logs and sawn timber in the world, with volume of imports increasing by 400% since 1995.

 

Taiwan (Republic Of China) began planting Swietenia macrophylla in the early 1990s at the Hsin-Hua Experiment Forest Station in Tainan and now has a total of 3,000 hectares of mahogany plantations in the region which are sustainably managed by the ROC government. It was planted primarily for reforestation purposes. There are no American mahogany exports from Taiwan at this time.

 

Swietenia mahagoni was planted on the islands of O’ahu and Maui in Hawaii in the early 1900’s both publically and privately. Much of it became naturalized forests. Swietenia macrophylla was planted in 1922 on O’ahu and is now naturalized. With the demise of Hawaii’s sugar industry in the 1990’s the former sugar plantations on the island of Kauai were converted for tree farming and a number of hardwood species were planted (including mahogany) beginning in 1996. Plantations of Swietenia macrophylla can also be found on Maui. Although there is no export market of Hawaiian mahogany, there is a small domestic market albeit at very high prices.

 

As mahogany has a 35-40 year rotation, quality harvesting from many of these countries is still years away.

CITES restrictions do not apply to Asian and South Pacific grown Swietenia as their plantations are sustainably managed and controlled.

The United States has always been the largest importer and consumer of American mahogany accounting for around 77% of the world market. Dominican Republic and Canada are also significant importers. Germany, Spain and Denmark have been the largest European importers, although total European imports pale in comparison to those of the United States at only 3% of the world market.

Despite international efforts, illegal logging is still taking place in some parts of South America today with 80% of this illegal timber being supplied to the USA by criminal operations. 

Within the last decade most intercepted illegal American mahogany has originated from Brazil, Peru or Belize. Significant seizures during the period have occurred in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Spain. 

Read Part 2: Mahogany Other than Swietenia

References:

Latest revision, 18 March 2016
©2017 Gaskell Guitars Australia

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