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The Rosewood Paradox: from the Malagasy forest to the modern Chinese home

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Abstract

Globalization, many now acknowledge, is characterized by disconnection as much as by connection. Capital “hops” across various hubs of development, bypassing underdeveloped spaces altogether. Yet between zones of intensive development and those areas entirely “left behind” are the places that straddle the difference. Northeastern Madagascar provides a unique example. Through its illicit trade in endangered rosewood, this remote region of Madagascar is tied to the global cosmopolitan centers of Chinese consumption and Western conservation, despite its extreme lack of development outside of these basic connections. China sends thousands of ships to the undeveloped shores of northeastern Madagascar to pick up rosewood fresh from the forest in order to fuel a growing demand for classical furniture, while the United States and Europe fund a “rosewood task-force” to fight against the trade. The equivalent of over a billion US dollars has been channeled into Madagascar to finance either rosewood conservation or logging in an area where most make less than a dollar a day.

This dissertation uses the case of rosewood, as it travels from the Malagasy forest to the modern Chinese home, to explore emerging global resource dynamics. I find that the rosewood logging crisis has not only transformed the forests of northeastern Madagascar, but has also contributed to the political rise of a group of local rosewood traders with direct ties to China. These elite traders now ride the wave of Chinese demand for rosewood, gaining new political heights within the Malagasy government in a power grab the international community has yet to fully appreciate. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in China, global financial speculation has reinvented classical rosewood furniture into a new form of speculative investment. Certain species of rosewood have become worth nearly their weight in gold. Paradoxically, environmental restrictions imposed for the protection of these species often exacerbate the speculation, driving Chinese importers deeper into the forest to satisfy the booming market.

As the world’s most trafficked endangered wildlife, rosewood serves as a powerful symbol of wider struggles for resources as they unfold across the globe. While often portrayed in terms of an East-West tension, the divergent global demands to cut or conserve rosewood demonstrate not the stark contrast of an increasingly bifurcating global order, but rather an emergent space of global connectivity that complicates binary understandings of East and West while simultaneously speaking to the reality of these geopolitical imaginaries. Taken altogether, the case reveals the paradoxical reality that those closest to global resources benefit least from their extraction and, conversely, that places that seem to be furthest removed from larger clashes in the global system can become one of the primary arenas of their unfolding.

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This item is under embargo until August 5, 2023.