What is Mahogany? Part 1: Swietenia
Apart from being wood, what is mahogany and why should you be interested? You may be surprised. The modern use of the word mahogany may surprise you.
In guitar-making what we regard traditionally as “mahogany” is the timber of only one of 49 genera that belong to the botanical family Meleaceae (Mahogany family.) This genus is called Swietenia, native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. It has three species:
1. Swietenia mahagoni, traded as CARIBBEAN MAHOGANY, CUBAN MAHOGANY, or WEST INDIAN MAHOGANY. It is the premier species. It is native to southern Florida in the United States and the West Indies; specifically, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bolivia, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, St Barthélemy, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, French St Martin, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Timber from this species was internationally traded (and exploited) for over 400 years and was the first species of mahogany used in the manufacturing of guitars until the 1950’s. It has been commercially extinct since 1947.
2. Swietenia macrophylla, traded as BIG LEAF MAHOGANY and as MAHOGANY with country of origin as prefix. It is native to the Atlantic side of Central America as well as much of South America, namely Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. This species replaced Swietenia mahagoni as the main timber species and is renowned as a tone wood. Since 2003 it has become commercially extinct from its native locations with the exception of some limited supply from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala, under heavy restrictions. In the period 2002-2011 Peru was the main exporter of Mahogany accounting for 38–44% of total direct trade reported by exporters and importers. During the same period the United States was the main importer, accounting for 75–77% of total direct imports. Dominican Republic was also a major importer during the same period. In terms of annual exports, Peru was the main exporter until around 2006, when it was overtaken by Bolivia and Guatemala.
Plantations exist in Asia and the Pacific and since the 2010s Fiji and Philippines have become the largest exporters of genuine mahogany. [See following.]
3. Swietenia humilis, traded as PACIFIC COAST MAHOGANY or MEXICAN MAHOGANY. It is is native to dry deciduous forests and savannas of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. This species is much smaller than the other two species. There are very few populations left and it is used mainly in local carpentry. There is no official international trade in this wood.
Note. All three species are considered “Genuine mahogany” with Swietenia mahagoni originally taking precedence in the classification. The generic term for all species is AMERICAN MAHOGANY.
So what happened to mahogany?
In simplicity: overlogging and illegal trade over about 85 years has brought all species of Swietenia mahogany to near extinction. Since 1950 Central American populations have suffered a 70-90% decline.
Unfortunately it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the inevitable fate of native Swietenia was fully recognized and specific measures were taken internationally to try and save the resource from future extinction.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between nations to uniformly police threats to the survival of plants and wild life due to human abuse. Formed in 1973 and passed in 1975 there are currently 180 “contracting parties” (nations) on the list today. Each party has their own national legislation which aligns with the agreement. An example is the Lacey Act of the United States which exists to police and control illegal import and export of banned or restricted plants and substances and wild life, effective from 2008.
CITES has three different levels of protection for species, known as Appendices:
Appendix I – This appendix represents species that are in the most danger and are considered to be threatened with extinction, and are consequently the most restricted in international trade. CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial such as for scientific research. In these very exceptional situations both export and import permits are required.
Appendix II – This appendix contains species that are at risk in the wild but not necessarily threatened with extinction. Species in this appendix are closely regulated but are typically not as restricted as Appendix I. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES although some countries have gone beyond the CITES requirements and do require additional permits.
Appendix III – This appendix contains species that a certain country (contracting party) has voluntarily requested to be regulated in order to help preserve the species in question. Appendix III species regulation is only applicable for the specific party that has requested its inclusion and is therefore much less restrictive than Appendix I or II. International trade in specimens of species listed in Appendix III is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.
All three species of Swietenia are listed on CITES Appendix II: S. humilis in January 1975, S. mahagoni in November 1992 and S. macrophylla in November 1995.
Since the 2000’s there has been much work done internationally to forward actions to conserve the resource and to explore alternatives for reforestation and sustainability on a worldwide scale.
Unfortunately, attempts to repopulate mahogany in its native locations have turned out to be largely unsuccessful. There are four major reasons why Swietenia can no longer be re-grown natively:
The soil is now depleted and barren.
The aggressive mahogany shoot borer Hypsipyla grandella kills the new trees. Modern Science has not managed to overcome this.
Genetic loss means that the current generations of seeds for planting are inferior and/or mutated.
Erosion has taken place where large forests have been cleared leaving those areas now uninhabitable.
In order to save Swietenia from impending extinction global Authorities were forced to look beyond its native locations to find solutions to the problem.
Attempts in the past to grow Swietenia in Africa resulted in uniform failure and abandonment due to attacks by Hypsipyla robusta, the African equivalent of Hypsipyla grandella.
Europe was not considered as it does not have the right climate to grow it.
Asia To The Rescue
It turns out that Asia and the South Pacific are the most successful areas where Swietenia can be grown outside of its native locations.
Following initial trials a number of Asian countries were consulted with and invested in to develop controlled, sustainable and renewable Swietenia mahogany plantations. This started mostly in the 1990’s and was helped along by the 1993 World Bank report entitled “Tropical Hardwood Marketing Strategies for Southeast Asia“. Under nursery conditions attack by Hypsipyla can be successfully controlled with insecticides.
In actual fact, some Asia-Pacific countries had already been growing Swietenia for a very long time, but not necessarily for timber purposes! Mahogany grown in Asian countries, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines, was mainly for protection of slopes and water catchments. The trees were also planted throughout Asia, but especially in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, as ornamentals along avenues. In some Asian countries it is used in agroforestry systems, for example with corn, rice, cassava, peanuts, and pumpkin.
Fiji had Swietenia macrophylla introduced originally in 1911 as an ornamental species using seeds from Honduras and Belize.
The first mahogany plantations were established by the government in 1935 and then expanded throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Mahogany continued to be planted throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Production was corporatized in 1998. Today, communal groups own 89% of the unexploited forests and 84% of all Fijian forests, including planted forests; the remaining 16% of forests are privately or state-owned. Unlike the rest of the world Hypsipyla does not exist in Fiji. There are now over 100,000 hectares of mahogany plantations, many over 40 years old and are naturally regenerating. Harvesting began in 2003. By 2005, production was over 60,000 cubic meters of logs per year.
The CITES Appendix 2 listing for Swietenia does not apply to plantation-grown Swietenia. In 2010 the total volume of mahogany harvested in Fiji surpassed the volume harvested from natural forests. In 2020 almost 100% of mahogany exports from Fiji went to the United States.
India has about 70.7 million hectares of primary or other naturally regenerated forest. Another 12 million hectares is planted forest. 18.5 million hectares of these forests are designated as production forests. Approximately 86% are publicly owned and 14% are privately owned. Regeneration and afforestation projects have seen positive expansion of forest area in India grow between 0.4 and 1.0 % per year since 1990. Teak is the main timber produced. Most of India's timber production is for domestic consumption, supplemented by large imports. The United States, China, and Nepal are India's largest export markets.
India had both Swietenia macrophylla and Swietenia mahagoni introduced in 1865 using seeds from West Indies. They were never managed and thereafter became naturalized forests. Some experimental mahogany plantations were planted in 1994 but were unsuccessful due to attacks by Hypsipyla robusta. There is no significant commercial trade and export of mahogany.
Bangladesh had Honduran Swietenia macrophylla introduced in 1872 and as with India it became naturalized in some places. Since 1993 and especially in the early 2000s the country has become involved in establishing managed plantations of many timber species, including Swietenia macrophylla, however the country endures regular and devastating floods which constantly cause serious damage to the plantations. There are no exports of American mahogany timber from Bangladesh at this time.
Indonesia currently has around 87.6 million hectares of primary or otherwise naturally regenerated forests and around 4.5 million hectares of planted forests. 86% of it is state-owned. Almost the entirety of Indonesia's timber production goes to domestic consumption. In 2015 the Indonesian government banned exports of roundwood and rough sawn timber for all timber species to protect domestic wood processing industries. The ban was upheld again in 2017. Indonesia exports mainly plywood and pulp and paper. Asia is its largest market with Japan, China and Korea being its main export markets. Its largest markets outside of Asia are the United States and Australia.
Swietenia mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla were introduced in 1870 using seeds from India. Plantation forests including Swietenia macrophylla were planted from the 1920’s to the 1940’s but it wasn’t until about 1990 that serious plantation development and management began. There are approximately 55,000 hectares of mahogany plantations in Indonesia, including plantations independently developed by smallholders. During the 2000’s American mahogany was exported from Indonesia however at that time an estimated 80% of the trade was from illegal logging.
Malaysia had Swietenia mahagoni introduced in 1876 followed by Swietenia macrophylla in 1886 and 1892. Both species were attacked by Hypsipyla robusta and further planting was abandoned. Small experimental plantations of S. macrophylla were included in the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) grounds in 1928 and 1931-1933 using seeds from trees that survived the original plantings. Planting continued in the 1950’s and 1960’s but continued to be unsuccessful due to Hypsipyla attack. Between 1992 and 1993 a further 1,000 hectares of Swietenia macrophylla were planted. Since sustainability reforms in 1999, the Malaysian government has implemented a large overarching forest plantation program targeted to develop 375,000 ha of selected timber plantation species by 2020, however Swietenia is not one of the key species. In 2014 Malaysia ranked #1 in the world for the highest volume of exported tropical logs and #11 for highest dollar value of sawn wood exports. As of 2022, sawn wood exports are #73 in the top 100 of goods (of every kind) exported from Malaysia.
Philippines has approximately 7.2 million hectares of forest area. 82% is naturally regenerated forest, and 12% is primary forest. 0.3 million hectares is planted forest of which Swietenia macrophylla accounts for approximately 50,000 hectares. 1.9 million hectares is designated for production. 63% of forest ownership is publicly owned and 37% is privately owned. Since 2000 forestry programs and natural regeneration have seen forest areas increase by 0.5% per annum. Over 90% of timber exports are to Japan. Japan, USA, and China are the largest markets for lumber. UK, Netherlands, and Japan are the largest markets for pulp and paper products.
Philippines had Swietenia macrophylla introduced in 1907 and in 1913 as well as Swietenia mahagoni in 1911, 1913, 1914, 1920 and 1922. It was planted with many other exotic tree species for the purpose of reforestation. Considerable planting of Swietenia macrophylla along with other exotic timber species occurred in the late 1980’s as part of a major afforestation and reforestation project by the Philippine government at that time. By 1993 there were 13,000 hectares of planted Swietenia macrophylla and it would go on to become the third most planted hardwood species thereafter. S. macrophylla is the third most important timber species harvested with 76,000 cubic meters of logs harvested per annum. Timber is the country’s third most valuable commodity.
Solomon Islands first introduced Swietenia macrophylla in plantations in 1978 and continued planting until 1995 when the government privatized the program. During that time over 3,500 hectares were planted. Large scale forestry planting is now done by private companies only and has led to exploitation and illegal logging. China accounts for almost 90% of timber exports, followed by much smaller exports to India Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea. In 2014 Solomon Islands was still the fourth largest exporter of tropical logs in the world. Timber exports account for 60-70% of the total export revenue of the national economy. In 2016 and 2017, around 65% of the country’s export earnings came from forestry, mainly through sale of round logs, sawn timber and veneer. Solomon Island's major markets for sawn timber are New Zealand and Australia. Taiwan and South Korea are major markets for veneer.
Forest plantation establishment commenced in Sri Lanka in the 1870s. Swietenia macrophylla was planted in 1897 but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that plantations were consciously established as efforts until then were focused on replacing the natural forest areas that had been lost owing to shifting cultivation. In 1953 the Sri Lankan government implemented new policy for the plantations, this time emphasizing the production of fuel wood and timber as the main role of forest plantations to alleviate the pressure on natural forests. Large-scale plantations of teak, eucalyptus, and pine were established until the 1980s. From 1982 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded community-managed plantations in five districts which continued until 1999. Mahogany has been one of five major exotics grown in Sri Lanka, including in home gardens, which is a major source of timber production in the country. Of the 131 309 hectares of plantation forest in Sri Lanka today, approximately 7,300 hectares are government-managed and private-sector Swietenia plantations.
China introduced Swietenia mahagoni in the late 1800’s specifically in the regions of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Yunnan. It is cultivated successfully in those regions today. Overall China has 6.5 million hectares of varied hardwood plantations comprising 43% of total timber plantations in the world. In 1998 the Communist regime banned the logging of mature trees throughout the country. Today, logging activities remain limited and instead China relies almost entirely on imports of timber and timber products from abroad, particularly Myanmar, Russia and Papua New Guinea. Communist China has become the largest importer of hardwood logs and sawn timber in the world, with volume of imports increasing by 400% since 1995. The attitude of the Communist regime and their adherents is that they would rather use everybody else's resources than their own, and they have no shame or respect for those they exploit. Make no mistake, it's not just "the government" that holds this toxic view. It is the people too. It's cultural.
Republic of China
Taiwan (Republic Of China) began planting Swietenia macrophylla in the early 1990s at the Hsin-Hua Experiment Forest Station in Tainan and now has a total of 3,000 hectares of mahogany plantations in the region which are sustainably managed by the ROC government. It was planted primarily for reforestation purposes. They are still many years away from harvesting. There are no mahogany exports from Taiwan at this time.
Swietenia mahagoni was planted on the islands of O’ahu and Maui in Hawaii in the early 1900’s both publicly and privately. Much of it became naturalized forests. Swietenia macrophylla was planted in 1922 on O’ahu and is now naturalized. With the demise of Hawaii’s sugar industry in the 1990’s the former sugar plantations on the island of Kauai were converted for tree farming and a number of hardwood species were planted (including mahogany) beginning in 1996. Plantations of Swietenia macrophylla can also be found on Maui. Although there is no export market of Hawaiian mahogany, there is a small domestic market albeit at very high prices.
As mahogany has a 35-40 year rotation, quality harvesting from many of these countries is still years away.
CITES restrictions do not apply to Asian and South Pacific grown Swietenia as their plantations are sustainably managed and controlled.
Mahogany on the world market
The United States has always been the largest importer and consumer of American mahogany accounting for around 77% of the world market. Dominican Republic and Canada are also significant importers. Germany, Spain and Denmark have been the largest European importers, although total European imports pale in comparison to those of the United States at only 3% of the world market.
Despite international efforts, illegal logging is still taking place in some parts of South America today with 80% of this illegal timber being supplied to the USA by criminal operations. Since January 2019, Interpol has categorized illegal logging as organized crime.
Since the 21st Century most intercepted illegal American mahogany has originated from Brazil, Peru or Belize. Significant seizures have occurred in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Poland, and Spain. And then of course there is the suppressive, racist, and totalitarian regime of Communist China... no one knows for sure as they withhold cooperation with the rest of the world (unless it suits their agenda), but we could surmise that they may be one of the worst, if not the worst violators.
Genuine mahogany consists of only 3 species.
Two of the three species are and have been of commercial interest in the timber trade.
All species of mahogany are restricted in their native locations.
Native mahogany is all but gone.
There is almost zero trade in native Swietenia, since 2003.
Asia and the South Pacific is where most new mahogany comes from today.
Asian and South Pacific mahogany is grown in controlled plantations.
There are no restrictions on plantation-grown mahogany.
The only difference between Asian/South Pacific mahogany and American mahogany is where it is grown. They are the same species.
Fji is the most successful harvester and exporter of mahogany in the 21st Century.
Illegal logging is still a problem in South America.
No factory-made musical instruments are ever made of American mahogany other than American mahogany from plantations.