For Madagascar farmer Edmond, who goes by one name, it was a breakthrough. In 2019 he perfected a complicated technique to grow a rare species of tree known as Dalbergia normandii.
The plants hail from a valuable, and difficult-to-propagate family of trees known as rosewoods, which have been felled near to the point of extinction in many parts of Madagascar.
“This year is one of the happiest years of my life because the time I spent on this technique was not in vain,” said Edmond, 60, who lives in Ambodimanga village on Madagascar’s eastern coast. “This time, luck is with me.”
Edmond is working on a rosewood conservation project coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its aim is to safeguard a group of trees that is the world’s most trafficked wild product by value and volume. From Guatemala to Madagascar to Thailand to Zambia, rosewoods have been targeted by timber traffickers who seek to profit especially from its growing demand in China and Viet Nam, principally for furniture.
“Over the last decade, the share of total rosewood imports to China coming from Africa has steadily increased, with a portion of this share suspected to have been illegally sourced in or exported from Africa,” says a July 2020 report by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
To help reverse this trend, in 2017 UNEP, Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and local partners launched a Global Environment Facility-funded project titled Conservation of key, threatened, endemic and economically valuable species. The project, which runs till 2022, seeks to reduce the threats to 21 economically important but threatened species at 18 sites in Madagascar. The production of large quantities of healthy new rosewood plants is critical to the project’s success.
The Pointe à Larrée protected area, on the coast in central-eastern Madagascar, currently managed by Missouri Botanical Garden, is one of the project sites. It’s home to 13 species targeted by the project, including six species of Dalbergia, most of them rosewood. (All species of Dalbergia fall within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Appendix II.)
Rosewood species “threatened for decades”
“These species have been threatened for decades due to commercial exploitation for their very valuable `precious wood’ and habitat loss due to slash-and-burn cultivation,” says Adolphe Lehavana, project manager at Pointe à Larrée and an employee of Missouri Botanical Garden, an international non-governmental organization mandated by Madagascar to manage the protected area.
“Population levels for some species are now critically low and they seemed doomed to local extinction since isolated trees fail to produce seeds.
“For example, within the landscape, including the protected area, researchers have been able to locate just 10 remaining individuals of Dalbergia maritima and just one remaining individual of Dalbergia louvelii – all outside the protected area,” he adds.
Through the project, resources are now being mobilized to prevent the local extinction of these very rare species by reinforcing the wild population as part of an ecological restoration programme.
In 2019 the team produced 2,328 young rosewood plants using the technique developed by Edmond, the farmer. Known as air-layering, it allows conservationists to grow new roots from a plant’s branches which can then be deposited into the ground. The rosewoods have been used, with other native tree species, to enrich around 10 hectares of degraded forest. To date, the survival rate of young rosewoods has been nearly 100 per cent.
The project contributes to the objectives of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework in Madagascar (2015-2019), providing vulnerable populations with employment opportunities and supporting sustainable development. It is also part of the broader effort to conserve biodiversity as set out in The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Through activities such as forest enrichment and restoration, the conservation of endemic species also contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 15, which aims to safeguard forests and protect biodiversity.