Resilient, rare, and incredibly lucrative on international markets, ipê trees are the unlucky bellwethers of illegal logging trends in the Brazilian Amazon. Wherever they can be found, mass deforestation eventually follows.
Selling for as much as $2,775 per cubic meter on global markets, ipê trees are the most valuable hardwood illegally extracted from Brazil's forests, according to a recent investigation by environmental news outlet Mongabay.
The report, published July 18, reveals how illegal deforestation mostly takes place in areas known as hotspots for harvesting ipê.
Though loggers extract a variety of timber species in the Brazilian Amazon, ipê trees are in a class of their own. Ipê is sold at a far higher price than other types of wood, according to a 2021 report by the International Tropical Timber Organization.
Ipê sawn wood sold at $876 per cubic meter domestically and for $1,752 per cubic meter at export prices, according to the report. The second most expensive wood, jatoba, sold at $431 in Brazil and for $997 abroad, highlighting the potential profits from harvesting ipê.
Used in flooring and decking, seven species of ipê trees grow in the Brazilian Amazon. The wood has become a prime target for illegal loggers because of its resistance to fungus, insects, and fire, on top of its sturdiness. The high demand is driving ipê trees closer to extinction with each year.
Ipê trees tend to grow surrounded by other types of timber. This leads to selective logging, with illegal loggers felling other valuable nearby trees without fully razing the area. The trick allows loggers "to fool the satellite" and evade detection, Luciano Evaristo, the former director of Brazil's environmental protection agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis - Ibama), told Human Rights Watch in 2019.
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The situation is dire for ipê trees, with traffickers going to great lengths to harvest the wood, hide it, and ultimately sell it for profit.
Europe, the United States and Canada are historically the largest markets for ipê trees. At least 525 million kilograms of ipê wood was exported from Brazil between 2017 and 2021, largely to those three markets. Yet increased international pressure to stamp out illegal and unsustainable logging has slashed demand in recent years.
As a result, Brazil's domestic market has swelled, increasing "by 15 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for civil construction in the south and southeast," according to Mongabay.
With limited protection, ipê trees risk being wiped out. They are a rare species that requires 80 to 100 years to achieve maturity and grows in extremely low densities.
One hectare of forest yields just 0.5 cubic meters of ipê wood, or around seven cubic feet per acre, according to Mongabay. This means loggers bulldoze broad swaths of forest in search of just a few trees.
The trees are so profitable that the term "ipê mafias" was coined to label illegal loggers harvesting a range of timber species in the Brazilian Amazon.
Like in other parts of Latin America, the ipê mafias rely on fraudulent documents that exaggerate the amount of trees located in area where logging is permitted. In some cases, this allows these groups to illegally extract ipê from protected areas while providing legitimate papers for export.