Common Name: Pau brasil, Pernambuco
Scientific Name: Caesalpinia echinata
Categories: Musical; National
Conservation Status: Endangered
National tree of Brazil, Caesalpinia echinata, commonly known in Brazil as pau brasil, gave its name to the country. Years of harvesting and reduction of the Atlantic Coastal Forest have reduced this species to the verge of extinction. Exploitation still continues, however, because its extremely dense hardwood is ideal for making bows for stringed musical instruments. It is also know as brasileto, ibirapitanga, orabutá, pau pernambuco, and pau rosado.
Why is this species important?
Pau brasil is the national tree of Brazil, the country to which it gave its name, and has strong cultural links to Brazil’s social and economic history. In the coastal forest ecosystems of Brazil it has been noted as an important habitat for orchids and other epiphytes. The species is famous for the dye extract taken from the heartwood, although synthetic dyes have now reduced this trade. The timber is highly valued by musical instrument makers for the manufacture of bows for stringed instruments.
Where is it found?
Pau brasil is confined to the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, an ecosystem recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot. It inhabits coastal regions with open forest and well-drained soils. Detailed information on the present geographical distribution of pau brasil is scarce, but in the last ten years remnant populations have been found in nine Brazilian states. The species is recorded in reserves in Bahia and Pernambuco. Determining the previous range of the species is also problematic because there are errors in the literature caused by incorrect identification and confusion with other related species.
How do people use it?
In the past, pau brasil was exploited for the dye that could be extracted from the heartwood. The exploitation of the dyewood dates back to 1501, the original collectors being called brasileiros. Until the mid-nineteenth century the dyewood was exported in huge quantities. Today, the bark and dye extract are used locally for medicinal purposes, and research is being undertaken to determine if the bark can be used to treat cancer.Traditionally pau brasil wood was also used to make hunting tools. The hard, compact timber is almost indestructible and was commercially harvested for use as a construction timber, in cabinet making and craftwork. It is still exported for the manufacture of bows for stringed instruments. During bow manufacture the wood must undergo shaping by heat and water, and then be able to retain the bend after being straightened by the pressure of the bow. It must therefore have the correct density, a straight grain with no knots, and must also be a suitable colour. Other woods have been used to construct bows in the past, but are thought to be of much lower quality.
Why is it threatened?
The extensive collection and export of the dyewood from pau brasil trees resulted in the loss of large areas of forest and the enslavement of local people. By the time synthetic dyes to replace it became available in 1875, dramatic population declines in the tree had already taken place, and these declines continued until the 1920s. Natural stands were almost completely destroyed but some populations remained in a few areas on the coastal plain, where they have since suffered from deforestation. Even after the dye was replaced with synthetic alternatives, exploitation of the timber continued. Timber is still highly sought after by bow manufacturers. There are no reliable figures for the amount of wood currently exported, but the annual world demand is likely to exceed 200 m3. The problem is exacerbated by the high level of wood wasted during processing; between 70-80 percent is lost as logs are converted to bow blanks, and a further 70-80 percent is lost in processing these into bows. Clear felling and logging also threaten the natural habitats of pau brasil, and utilisation by local people may be having a detrimental impact on the population levels
What conservation action is needed?
Pau brasil is listed on the official list of threatened Brazilian plants by the government wildlife agency IBAMA, and there is currently a reintroduction programme for pau brasil at Linareas Reserve. In 1997 FFI, with the Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro and the Margaret Mee Foundation, convened a meeting to develop an action plan for the conservation and management of pau brasil. Agreement was reached amongst all participants on the recommended actions relating to different aspects of conservation and sustainable use. As part of the Global Trees Campaign, FFI is currently supporting education and public awareness about the conservation of this flagship species and will be working again with the Rio Botanical Gardens and the Margaret Mee Foundation to carry out a more detailed study into the distribution and conservation requirements of this species. For more information, please see the project pages here.
Fauna & Flora International (1997). Conservation and management of Pau brasil Caesalpinia echinata – An action plan. Report from the workshop -Partners Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro, Margaret Mee Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK.
Green, C.L. (1995). Natural colourants and dyestuffs. A review of production and development potential. Non-Wood Forest Products 4,: FAO, Rome.
IBAMA. (1992). Lista oficial de espécies da flora Brasileira ameaçadas de extinçao. (unpublished). 4pp.
Sociedade Botânica do Brasil. (1992). Centuria plantarum Brasiliensium extintionis minitata. Sociedade Botânica do Brasil. 175pp.
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