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Saving What Remains


A Quest to Save a Tree, and Make the World Smell Sweet
Sept. 1, 2005
The New York Times

SILVES, Brazil - Until the perfume Chanel No. 5 went on the market in 1921, pau rosa, or Brazilian rosewood, was just another tree that grew in abundance in the Amazon. But the enduring popularity of that fragrance, which includes rosewood oil as a main ingredient, began a process that has led to a black-market trade in the oil, and the tree itself being designated an endangered species.

Worldwide, the demand for perfumes, soaps, balms and scented candles has skyrocketed in recent years, helped by rising incomes among women and New Age trends like aromatherapy. Because of rosewood's cachet, demand for the oil far outstrips the legal supply, and some fragrance manufacturers will pay just about anything to get their hands on it.

"That bouquet is unmatchable, and it makes people act strangely," said Paulo Tarso de Sampaio, co-author of the book "Bio-Diversity in the Amazon" and a scientist at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus. "Intense exploitation means that all the areas where there was easy access to rosewood have just about been leveled, but still the demand continues to grow."

The European companies, mainly French, that dominate the fragrance industry originally obtained their stocks of rosewood oil from French Guiana, 500 miles northeast of here. But when the exploitation there grew so intense that the tree was virtually wiped out, they turned next to the Brazilian Amazon.

But by the late 1980's, the rosewood population in Brazil's eastern Amazon had also been eradicated. Alarmed, Brazil's environmental protection agency responded by putting rosewood on its list of endangered species.

The measure was meant to stop the plunder. But with the agency unable to enforce its prohibition, much of the rosewood trade went underground, pushing prices up and forcing companies like Phebo, Brazil's oldest soap manufacturer, to look for lower-cost synthetic substitutes, which are imported from places like China.

"Rosewood soap continues to account for half our sales, but we had to stop using the real thing around 1990," said Roberto Lima, manager of the company's plant in Bel�m, at the mouth of the Amazon. "We sell nearly four times as much soap as we did back then, but the scarcity of the natural extract has pushed the price to a level that only the big companies overseas can afford."

What happens after drums of the fragrant oil leave mills in the Amazon for export is not always clear. Environmental groups say much of the oil is routed through a handful of brokers, many based in the New York area. But those intermediaries are reluctant to talk about how they obtain the product and how they manage to comply with the Brazilian government's strict regulations.

According to academic and industry studies, legal rosewood oil production in Brazil today is barely one-tenth of its peak in the late 1960's, when annual output was 300 tons. The number of registered mills, which turn rosewood tree trunks into oil through an inefficient process that seems to devour trees, has also fallen drastically, from more than 50 in the 1940's to fewer than 8 now.

About six years ago, though, a community group in this small island town in the middle of the Amazon River began an effort to try to revive the industry, this time on a sustainable basis. Rather than simply cut down trees and haul away their trunks, the group, Avive, decided to prune branches and leaves every five years or so, thereby extending the usefulness of individual rosewood trees for decades.

Today the project's members, most of them peasant women, have planted and are tending more than 3,000 rosewood saplings in the heart of the jungle. They also distill rosewood oil and manufacture about 1,000 bars of soap a month at a small plant here.

"My husband used to work at one of the mills, and there they take out the tree and leave nothing in its place," said Anete de Souza Canto, a leader of the group. "Not us. I'm 47 years old and have five daughters, so I'm thinking of the future."

The group has also begun harvesting other exotic fragrances from trees for soaps and salves, always taking care to replace what they take. "Everything that smells good, we're planting," M�rcio Jo�o Neves da Batista, a 25-year-old who operates the distillery that boils leaves and branches into oil, said proudly.

But Avive's task has not proved easy. Jungle lots the government has placed under the group's care have been razed, with invaders simply cutting down and hauling away trunks from mature trees standing as tall as 100 feet.

According to Mr. Sampaio, the concentration of oil in rosewood leaves can be twice as much as that in the trunk. But larger volumes of branches and leaves are needed to produce the same amount of oil, and since that requires extra labor, it is more convenient and profitable for scofflaw lumberjacks and mill operators alike to stick to the old, predatory system.

Higher labor and operating costs also mean a higher price for the finished product. Middlemen have balked at paying that premium so long as illegal supplies are still available, but some users say they would gladly buy the environmentally friendly rosewood oil if only it were made available to them.

"The ideal thing would be to use the natural oil obtained from branches and leaves, because it's good for nature and good for the consumer," said Mr. Lima, the soap plant manager. "Besides the marketing appeal of having a product that is ecologically correct, if we could get a steady supply of the natural oil, we wouldn't have to import the essence from abroad, which only adds to our costs and brings no benefits to our region."