Camino Verde Missive October 2012: Saving Rosewood

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

The history of the Amazon could easily be written as a chronological inventory of products discovered—and then over-exploited—in the world´s richest forest. Quinine, rubber, mahogany, animal skins, oil, gold: each chapter would tell of how another amazingly useful wonder of nature was found and, almost without exception, driven to the verge of extinction to the great detriment of the ecosystem as a whole.

While bulldozers, chainsaws, and pipelines are a few of the more familiar symbols of rainforest destruction, one of the most bizarre episodes in this history relates to environmental harm at the hands of…essential oil distillation equipment.

This is the unexpected, true story of one of the world’s best smelling trees—and thankfully, an opportunity to write a new, more hopeful chapter.

Scent of the rainforest

Palo rosa, or Brazilian rosewood, is a large canopy tree named for the rich floral aroma of its leaves, branches, bark, andwood.  In the beginning of the 20th Century, this incredible rose-like scent caught the attention of the perfume industry, leading to a period of extreme over-harvesting.  But harvesting is probably too nice a word.  Finding the aromatic essential oil in every part of the plant, trees were literally dug out of the ground, roots and all. 

The wood was shredded or chipped as finely as possible and then passed through makeshift distillation equipment set up in the middle of the jungle.  Entire populations of rosewood were wiped out in huge areas of Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere. Before long, rosewood exports declined sharply due to a lack of available "material," and the perfume industry instead turned to synthetic scents and chemical equivalents.  Few people in the region of Madre de Dios, Peru even remember this brief, glorious, tragic burst of wealth from such an unlikely source.

Today, Brazilian rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species, as well as Brazil´s official list of endangered flora. 

Rewriting history, one tree at a time

Ever since we started planting trees, finding rosewood seeds has been a sort of holy grail for me personally and for Camino Verde´s mission to protect the most endangered trees of the Amazon.  This tree is so endangered that it took us five years to find a source of seedlings.  I am thrilled to report that as of this moment, close to 750 seedlings—baby rosewoods—are sitting in the plant nursery of one of our allied organizations, awaiting the start of the rainy season to be planted at our reforestation center.

In addition, we´ve teamed up with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CACE) to bring the potential benefits of rosewood reforestation home, where they belong, to the native people of the Amazon.  We are propagating an additional 1,200 rosewood tree seedlings vegetatively (reproduced from cuttings) at a nursery in the Loreto region of northern Peru.  With Camino Verde providing oversight and technical assistance, CACE will help us make a home for these wonderful, highly endangered trees in one of its partner native communities.

But the coolest part is this: because essential oil is held in every part of the plants, we are working to refine standards for a sustainable harvest of rosewood—allowing for the production of essential oil without harming the trees (in fact, timely pruning can be beneficial to the trees´ growth).  By 2015, don´t be surprised if you see the first samples of rosewood essential oil from Camino Verde and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology.

Be a part of the change

We need your help to make this important work with palo rosa a reality.  A generous grant from the Marjorie Grant Whiting Center has enabled us to purchase our first small-batch distillation equipment for making sample essential oils.  But we are still $5,000 away from the funding we need in order to realize the project’s full potential: for larger, production-scale distillation equipment and to make good on the promise to share our reforestation experience with native communities that want to plant rosewood.  A sustainable future for rosewood, and many others of the Amazon’s amazing trees—your contribution can help grow this vision into reality. 

And now your help counts double.  Through the generosity of one of our long-time donors and supporters, in October and November (right now), all donations to Camino Verde will be matched, so that every dollar you give will count for two.  For as long as the matching funds last, your $100 donation will allow us to plant 40 trees, rather than the usual 20.

We are grateful for your support—and so excited to see one more of the Amazon´s marvels protected for future generations.

Warm greetings from Tambopata,

Robin Van Loon