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Carving away the forest

Tuesday March 8, 2005

Carving away the forest

By ED STODDARD

Southern Africa’s booming industry in wood carvings may be coming at a high price: the destruction of the region’s hardwood forests.  

Environmentalists say the largely unregulated activity has almost wiped out Malawi's African blackwood, a hardwood coveted by carvers for its colour and texture. 

And as forests vanish in densely populated Malawi – one of the centres of the trade – they fear an unsustainable demand is being sparked for hardwood species in neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Zambia. 

“The resource is under severe pressure and Malawian carvers are turning increasingly to other sources of wood,” said Tom Milliken, director of the East and Southern African branch of TRAFFIC, which monitors the trade in wild plants and animals. 

Woodcarvings made from durable, heavy, dark woods with beautiful grain.
A TRAFFIC report in 2000 on the situation in Malawi painted a bleak picture. It said preference for durable, heavy, dark woods with a beautiful grain has depleted numerous indigenous hardwoods in Malawi. It said exploitation of forest resources continues unabated, with the result being extreme depletion of selected species. 

Many of the finished products wind up in South Africa, which has a huge and fast growing tourist sector. In 2002 and 2003, almost 2.3mil Rand (RM1.56mil) worth of curios came through Johannesburg International Airport from Malawi – a total of 446,326 items, according to customs figures. 

Customs data also shows that South Africa imported more than 9mil Rand (RM6mil) worth of wood products in total in 2003 from Malawi compared to 8.8mil Rand (RM5.9mil) in 2002.  

Illicit supplies which slip through the border have obviously not been measured but some conservationists fear they could be substantial. 

In the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank, a bustling African craft market has close to 70 stalls where hawkers sell carvings which come from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and as far afield as Cameroon. 

Masks hang from walls while bowls and chess sets are stacked together. Many of the stalls have identical carvings which are found in other markets across the country, pointing to mass production operations. Animal carvings are common with the “Big 5” – elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard – a favourite theme. 

“Most of the stuff here is made from mahogany, ebony and ironwood,” said Samuel Sithole, a Malawian hawker, as he gestured at his stall crammed with carvings. 

Not all the products are carved from such desirable hardwoods. One hawker dragging a 4m tall giraffe said it was made from jacaranda – a South American tree famous for its pungent blossoms but a species which the government would like to get rid of because it is a foreign plant which uses lots of water. 

Stacks of woodcarvings awaiting buyers in an upscale mall in Johannesburg, South Africa, in December last year. The nation’s booming industry in wood carvings may be destroying the region’s hardwood forests.
Sithole says he must pay 1,600 Rand (RM1,083) a month for his stall and that business lately has not been brisk, but some of the price tags are steep – and not the bargain they once were for foreign tourists given the recent strength in South Africa’s rand currency. 

Some of the carvings are beautiful but a deforested landscape is not. The implications may be profound for Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries which is already suffering environmental stress from over population. 

Loss of forest deprives poor rural people of essential firewood. It can add to soil erosion and can lead to the extinction of local plants and animals which depend on hardwoods. – Reuters  

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