Last month, an article about Genuine Mahogany was featured in National Geographic magazine. In it the author discusses its threatened state, demand, and solutions to curbing its illegal harvest. Since most large Genuine Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) stands are found in the remote forests of South America controlling its illegal harvest has been difficult, despite its endangered species status (cites.org). Apparently logging companies will buy or lease legal forest concessions, usually quickly depleted, but then will use these permits to sneak into adjoining protected forests or indigenous territories. These circumstances are met with increased patrolling and stricter trade laws but in the end, like drugs, the product will make its way to the consumer. Its a great read, but I ask myself why one of the world’s great timber species is still rejected as a plantation crop. I know the answer, I’ve worked with foresters and timber investors my whole life, it all come down to a pesky insect. The Mahogany shoot borer (Hypsipyla grandella), damages trees when its larva bores into and kills the terminal shoot. A lateral branch grows upward to replace the lost terminal shoot, resulting in a crooked main stem. Also, the damage to the terminal breaks apical dominance, resulting in excessive lateral branching. (Howard and Meerow 1993). Small trees whose terminal shoots are attacked repeatedly in successive years become extremely deformed, severely reducing its commercial value/potential. The shoot borer has created a situation in which the only considerable plantations are located on islands (exotic to mahogany) where the moth doesn’t exist, namely Fiji and the Philippines. That said, and despite what you may hear, the shoot borer can be controlled. We’ve been doing it for years. There is a cost effective, easy method for doing so, the only requirement is consistent management. The big argument is that individual control is too labor intensive and therefore too expensive. In Guatemala, we recently did a cost study of shoot borer management for 13000 trees. In the first year we averaged $0.16 per tree, in the second year when the trees are taller and more difficult manage, that increased by 25%. By the third year, no more control was necessary due to height and hardening of the shoot. Furthermore mahogany requires less formative pruning than other species because it naturally grows vertically. There is significant data on its growth, recently a comprehensive study conducted by the University of Munich estimated optimal rotation length for mahogany at roughly 25 years, which is more than competitive when compared to other hardwoods. This estimate is roughly in line with our own growth predictions.
The biggest advantage of Mahogany against, say Teak, is its incredible robustness. Mahogany can grow on very poor and diverse soils, which is evident when you consider its wide distribution from Mid-Mexico all the way down to the Southern Amazon. Meaning, even if the labor requirements are slightly higher, you can establish it on cheaper lands. In Panama’s Western Darien “teakable” lands cost anywhere between $4000 and $7000 per hectare, marginal lands may be procured at half of that price. That ratio remains roughly consistent throughout Central America and I speculate Brazil is similar.
The other side of this story is calculating market value for plantation mahogany and how it sizes up to Teak expectations. And of course a quality comparison between natural and plantation mahogany. I will be discussing both subjects in an upcoming entry.