More than 80 percent of timber from the Amazon is logged illegally, and mahogany --also known as the “green gold”-- has been the main target of such operations. Mahogany's value --a cubic meter can fetch more than US $1,600 per cubic meter-- has attracted loggers who encroach deep into pristine forests to supply a demand almost exclusively aimed at export markets.
Brazil’s "mahogany belt" covers some 80 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon, stretching from the south of Pará to Acre, crossing the north of Mato Grosso, Rondônia and southern Amazonas. Unsurprisingly, this region falls within the Amazon’s ‘deforestation belt’. Mahogany prospectors fly hundreds of kilometres over dense forest in search of scattered mahogany trees, often fewer than one per hectare. To gain access to a single mahogany tree, loggers often bulldoze illegal access roads --stretching over hundreds of kms-- criss-crossing previously untouched forest. Logs are extracted up to 500km from the nearest sawmill.
Mahogany logging not only results in widespread forest destruction, but also impacts on indigenous peoples living in the area. The largest remaining concentrations of mahogany are found on or around Indian lands in Pará State. Fifteen Indian lands cover 16,243,000 hectares of forest and although the Brazilian Constitution protects Indian lands from all industrial exploitation, all those lands have been illegally invaded by logging companies in search of the green gold. The standard tactic used by the loggers is to enter the Indian lands, fell the trees and then negotiate on the basis of the trees that have been cut down, paying at best US$30 per tree, while the sawn timber from that tree then sells on the export market for upwards of US$3,300.
Many violent conflicts resulting from the illegal industry have been reported on Indian lands. Indians have been forced to take direct action to halt the illegal invasion of their lands by loggers. Tragically, this has sometimes ended in violence. An unknown number of Indians have been murdered because of their opposition to the industry.
The irony is that much of the mahogany extracted from the forest ends up as coffins and toilet seats, while the rest is mostly used for the production of extremely expensive furniture to be purchased by a very limited number of people. Exporters, traders, manufacturers, retailers and end consumers of mahogany thus participate in the process of devastation of the Amazon driven by profit on the one hand and “prestige” on the other. The glamourous products on sale in shops and showrooms across the world lend a respectable face to an industry that is both destructive and corrupt.
Five countries --the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, Germany and the Dominican Republic-- import almost all the Brazilian mahogany exported from Pará, the largest mahogany producing region in Brazil.
Four importers--DLH Nordisk, Aljoma Lumber, J. Gibson McIlvain Co. Ltd. and Intercontinental Hardwoods Inc-- buy more than two-thirds of the mahogany export trade from companies linked to Moises Carvalho Pereira and Osmar Alves Ferreira, the two Brazilian "mahogany kings".
Using forged documents to make it appear that the logs were harvested legally, they export the logs to overseas buyers. The furniture manufacturing sector is the single largest user of mahogany and includes reputable companies such as LifeStyle Furnishings International, Furniture Brands International, Stickley and Ethan Allen, in the US; Gibbard Furniture Shops Ltd. in Canada; International Timber, Timbmet, James Lathams and Vincent Murphy in UK which supply furniture companies such as Rackstraw, Arthur Brett, Wood&Mott, Titchmarsh&Goodwin, Restall Brown&Chennell and Charles Barr.
There have been several initiatives by official Brazilian agencies to clamp down on the illegal mahogany trade. In 1996 the Brazilian government put in place a two-year moratorium on any new Forest Management Plans (FMPs) for mahogany, which was later extended and will remain in place until June 2002. However, the ban on new mahogany FMPs appears to have consolidated control of the trade into the hands of the few, and the continued strong global demand and high market value for mahogany products creates a strong incentive for Pará’s mahogany kings to log illegally.