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What Is Ebony Lumber?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ebony lumber is a type of decorative and building construction wood obtained from various species of tropical trees in the genus of Diospyros. It is most often a very dark brown or black-colored wood that is highly valued for its unique look, density, and grain quality when it is made into furniture, cabinets, or statuary. Sources for ebony lumber are primarily the nations of India and Sri Lanka where up to 80% of it is consumed internally, yet controversy has raged for years as of 2011 concerning the sale of ebony lumber on the international market. This is because ebony wood like the related highly-valued woods of mahogany and ceiba are harvested from tropical rainforests by destroying that region of the rainforest in the process.

The United States has often been seen as one of the leading contributors to tropical rainforest deforestation, in large part because it has such a large economy and imports a great deal of wood to satisfy it. The US has 5% of the world's population as of 2011, but makes use of a total of 17% of all of the timber produced around the globe. Restrictions exist in US law for the import of ebony lumber, however, that were initiated with the Lacey Act passed by the US Congress in 1900 and amended in the year 2008. The law basically states that raw ebony wood cannot be imported into the US from nations such as India, but finished goods made out of ebony lumber in India can be imported to and sold within the confines of the US. Similar US restrictions exist for the import of ebony, rosewood, or other highly-prized woods from nations like Madagascar.

International restrictions that attempt to regulate the global trade in ebony lumber are managed under the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora, or CITES. As of 2005, 124 nations had signed the CITES convention, which focuses on regulating or prohibiting the trade and sale of species that could lead to their extinction. The CITES legislation also specifically defers to the local nation's laws about how natural resources are to be used, with which other import nations must comply.

The effect of CITES on the ebony lumber trade itself is controversial. This is because restricting the sale of such types of lumber drives up their price in the international market, and encourages smuggling and illegal clear-cutting of the wood. Restricting foreign sales of ebony lumber as a raw natural resource that nations can use as a cash crop is also seen as discriminating against developing nations. Relatively poor nations that have large tracts of tropical forest with ebony lumber reserves can be seen as the subject of oppressive foreign oversight and intrusion, as well as complicated international bureaucracy with which they have a difficult time complying in order to develop their economies.

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