“Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and The Rise of Global China” by Annah Lake Zhu


China’s Pearl River Delta recently surpassed Tokyo as the world’s largest urban area. Amid that vast conurbation of over 60 million people stands the city of Zhongshan. The birthplace of Sun Yat-sen, Zhonghsan’s factories supply China’s middle class with consumer goods like lighting, furniture, and appliances. Looking east across the Indian Ocean, one finds Antalaha, a small harbor town on Madagascar’s eastern coast. Bordered by three national parks and without a paved road to the nation’s capital, Antalaha’s 67,000 inhabitants might seem remote. But thanks to a tree growing in those parks, Antalaha found itself fueling Zhongshan’s furniture industry. Annah Lake Zhu’s new book Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and The Rise of Global China, explores the consequences of this unexpected connection.

Zhongshan has exported rosewood chairs, desks, tables, and footstools to the rest of China since the Ming dynasty. Over time, this furniture transitioned from a signal of royalty to a mandatory accoutrement for China’s well-to-do. That association with wealth cost it dearly in the Cultural Revolution, when its ownership invited abuse and persecution from the Red Guards. By the end of the decade, countless families had pawned or destroyed once-cherished heirlooms. Reforms under Deng Xiaoping might have repaired the economic devastation, but the cultural damage remained. China’s new consumer class found sustenance in its past, looking to rosewood as an affirmation of their identity and heritage. When the Chinese government sought to cool financial markets by limiting speculation in equities and real estate, the long-lasting hardwood took on another role: investment vehicle. Without quite meaning to, the authorities inaugurated what the Malagasy would call “the time of the rosewood.”

Zhu’s skill as an interlocutor makes for poignant reading.

Rosewood Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China, Annah Lake Zhu (Harvard university Press, June 2022)
Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China, Annah Lake Zhu (Harvard university Press, June 2022)

Over the last two centuries, Madagascar’s polity has run the gamut from indigenous monarchy to French colonial rule, one-party socialist state and today’s Fourth Republic. Government after government all failed to extend basic infrastructure and institutions to the island’s northeast, but they held one policy constant: state ownership of Madagascar’s forests. To this day, most of the villages surrounding the natural parks rely on slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture, enduring a “hungry period” before the annual rice harvest. A small Cantonese population managed to escape that endemic poverty by cornering the market on vanilla exports. Their combination of cultural affinity and business experience proved invaluable when Zhongshan’s furniture industry began sourcing rosewood from beyond Asia.

The surge in price for rosewood logs provided ample incentive for local farmers to abandon their rice paddies and enter the forests. The lack of property rights removed any incentive to leave trees standing. A predictable “tragedy of the commons” ensued, with disastrous results for Madagascar’s biodiversity. But Zhu’s lesson in basic economics has an even more tragic sequel: the lost opportunity for Malagasy farmers. As countless logs floated out of the country, unprecedented foreign capital flowed in, primarily to a tiny handful of elites granted export licenses. Far too little revenue went to the laborers struggling in austere and dangerous conditions. The money that did trickle down created circumstances of “baseline poverty punctuated by extreme abundance.” A lack of commercial banks in the region meant that loggers had nowhere to save or invest their windfall. Without a reliable police force, they were obvious targets for robbery. These circumstances constrained the ability of loggers to make the most of their earnings. Instead of investment, earnings went to frenzied conflagrations of spending that left them with little more than a hangover to show for their time in the forest.

The villages surrounding Madagascar’s national parks have many problems, not least of which is the attention they receive from environmental groups. A recent trend of allowing Western NGOs to manage the parks created much needed breathing space between villagers and corrupt local gendarmes. But the Western emphasis on preservation also erected a barrier between local people and their most viable source of income. Zhu traces that lack of empathy to the Western notion of “nature”. Since Ralph Waldo Emerson, a lineage of philosophers and activists all saw the natural world as distinct and apart from humanity, flourishing only when shielded from our depredations. Zhu contrasts that with a Chinese view where civilization and nature exist less as a dichotomy and more as complements. Does a building have feng shui? That question seems absurd or obvious depending on one’s perspective. Zhu’s excavation of two competing intellectual genealogies supports her case that Westerners should interrogate the cultural foundations of the seemingly “scientific” policies they foist on developing countries.

An imperious approach to environmental policy in the Global South often garners more resentment than gratitude. Zhu conveys the bitterness behind African complaints over “ideologically driven anti-trade and anti-use models … dictated largely by Western non-state actors who have no experience with, responsibility for, or ownership over wildlife resources.” Western policymakers would do well to realize that there is more to China’s growing influence in Africa than money. Simultaneously the world’s largest deforester and tree-planter, the Chinese example of working with nature offers developing countries a more feasible route to development than strict preservation.

The rise of China presents challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

At their best, Zhu’s chapters read like dispatches from a foreign correspondent: intrepid, open-minded, and sympathetic to her subjects. Her skill as an interlocutor makes for poignant reading. How should we reconcile the pride and dignity rosewood embodies for Chinese consumers with the corruption and environmental damage it exacerbates in Madagascar? Zhu’s travels eventually lead her to a promising solution: plantation agriculture on privately held land in both China and Madagascar. These vast experiments in monoculture will never resemble Western ideals of untouched nature, but they represent a reliable source of inputs for Zhongshan, a secure source of income for farmers, and a viable path to survival for the redwood.

The rise of China presents challenges and opportunities in equal measure. Rosewood farms may not represent the end of history, but they do show how different societies can converge on practical solutions. Businesses, governments, and non-profits would do well to consider that example.

A former US Marine and Iraq war veteran, Dr James Herndon worked in Udaipur, India while completing his PhD in Economics. He currently works as a consultant in Birmingham, Alabama.