Native from Amazonia, Aniba rosaeodora, usually known as Rosewood, is a large tree that may reach 30m high and 1m in diameter. In its natural environment, it has a narrow treetop and a straight trunk. Cultivated trees can show a wider treetop and a multibranched trunk. It also has tiny yellow flowers, oval purple fruits (when ripe) and highly aromatic wood.
Rosewood essential oil is obtained by distillation of any part of the plant, being characterized by the substantial presence of linalool. Its production reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century, in the State of Amazonas, where distilleries were installed along the Madeira and Medium Amazonas rivers. The inappropriate exploitation of this amazon icon, made IBAMA ask for the inclusion of the specie in the appendix II of the list of protected species by CITES in 2010. It’s estimated that, during 90 years of exploitation, more than 2 million trees were slaughtered.
Aniba rosaeodora trees occurs from east French Guiana and Surinam to the Amazon region of Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, the specie is concentrated from the State of Pará to the Purus River basin, in the central-south part of the Amazonas State. It grows in high humidity areas, strictly in non-flooded areas.
The traditional method of the exploitation, consisted in identifying the trees in the forest and cutting them down. The trunk, sometimes even the roots, were cut in pieces and sold to the distillery. This technique had a small impact on the forest itself since only rosewood trees were cut down. However, the impact on the specie was tremendous since each and every tree identified in the forest was harvested for distillation. Although it was mandatory to plant rosewood seedlings proportionally to the number of cut trees, very few plantations resisted to the lack of knowledge in the field.
Currently, a few initiatives succeeded in managing rosewood in plantations. The essential oil is now obtained by trimming the trees and distilling leaves and thin branches. This sustainable method is promoting the rebirth of rosewood as a perfumery and aromatherapy specialty.
This new proposal of rosewood cultivation brings positive attributes that cover not only the product itself, but the entire ecosystem of agriculture in the Amazon. The reforestation of degraded areas with rosewood trees offers an alternative to the cultivation of soybeans and cattle raising, two of the main drivers of deforestation in Brazil.
Research done over time, concluded that the oil extracted from leaves and branches is quite similar to the oil from the wood quality wise. Additionally, it was identified that the leaf oil can be, in fact, superior in relation to linalool content, reaching up to 90%, while in the wood oil it rarely exceeds 87%. Linalool is one of the substances that give the oil its interesting scent with floral, woody and citrus facets. Color wise the oil varies from a greenish yellow to light yellow shade. Also, the extraction yield can be superior when using leaves and branches. According to Professor Lauro Barata, “the leaves and branches contain up to 2.4% of oil, while the wood produces 1.2% at most”.
The heyday of rosewood production took place during the 50’s of the XX century. It is estimated that there were some 3500 people working directly with rosewood harvesting and distillation. However, there was no respect to basic employees’ rights and traditional and unethical practices were used to keep the worker in a constant debt with the employer.
The rebirth of the rosewood industry in a totally different scenario will create hundreds of direct jobs in the Amazon region. The activity will demand direct jobs in nurseries, plantations and distilleries as well indirect jobs in transportation, natural fertilizers and machinery.
As an alternative to traditional agricultural activities like manioc and cattle raising, the cultivation of rosewood and other aromatic plants will provide additional source of income to farmers and especially small landholders.
According to one of the most well-known traders and an enthusiast of rosewood oil, Samuel Benchimol, before the commercial availability of synthetic linalool in the early 1960’s, it is estimated that an average of 20.000 trees per year were cut down in the Brazilian Amazon. During the 1980’s this rate came down to 6.000 trees per year. Combining these numbers with the occurrence of the specie in the native forest, the average tree weight and yield of essential oil, it can be estimated that almost 1 million trees were harvested and more than 4 million hectares were explored.
Although the figures are quite impressive, the actual harm caused by the activity over the Amazon Forest was incomparably smaller than the devastation promoted by agriculture, especially soy and cattle. The distilleries were looking just for rosewood trees and the damage caused on other species and on the forest itself was almost neglectable. On the other hand, the impact of the activity over the distribution and genetic variability of Aniba rosaeodora was enormous and threatens the survival of the specie in its natural environment.
The migration of the rosewood essential oil industry from wild extraction to plantation will reduce and eventually eliminate the pressure over the wild natural stocks.
Rosewood oil was a major source of linalool for the perfumery industry in the early 1900’s. After the appearance of synthetic linalool at more affordable prices than the natural product available, the demand for the oil dropped significantly. Before the inclusion of rosewood on the Appedix II of CITES in 2010, rosewood oil was still used in fine fragrances and particular flavors for the most demanding markets worldwide. After the beginning of international trade control, the production of rosewood oil almost disappeared and very few companies secured the necessary supply to keep the production of rosewood-containing perfumes and cosmetics up and running.
Recently, rosewood oil scarcity and trade control caused a huge increase on its price, which is more than 10 times higher than the price practiced during the early 2000’s. This caused a shift on the main user of this specialty. Today, rosewood oil can only be found in very few prestige cosmetic products, niche fragrances and aromatherapy.
Besides its use in perfumery, it is noteworthy the oil applications for aromatherapy and other uses. There are several articles in scientific public online databases reporting the use of rosewood and linalool-rich botanicals for their sedative, antidepressant, anticonvulsive and anti-inflammatory effects. It has also been reported as a skin penetration enhancer for bioactive components and as an antioxidant and photoprotector against damages caused by UV-B radiation.