How Sustainable Is Cocobolo Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Cocobolo Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Cocobolo wood is considered one of the best-looking and best-sounding woods from the tropics, highly sought after for fine furniture and musical instruments. The color is deep and rich, highlighted with attractive swirling patterns. Tone travels through it fast and accurately. However, illegal and over-logging in tropical forests for cocobolo wood timber have extremely high costs, especially regarding biodiversity. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of cocobolo wood? 

Cocobolo wood is generally a sustainable material thanks to carbon sequestration and storage. But excessive and illegal felling trees in tropical forests to harvest the wood has a high ecological cost. Also, cocobolo wood typically travels long distances, resulting in increased carbon emissions.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of cocobolo wood used for fine furniture and musical instruments. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable cocobolo wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Cocobolo Wood Is

Cocobolo wood is a sustainable material for two main reasons. The first reason is the potential for carbon sequestration from cocobolo trees. Secondly, it is the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with cocobolo wood. 

Conversely, tropical forest deforestation has mounting ecological costs that we can’t ignore.

It is important, however, to note that wood is better for the environment than plastic, providing that it is sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To better understand the sustainability of cocobolo wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like musical instruments or furniture. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life-cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life cycle of cocobolo wood. 

The life-cycle stages of cocobolo wood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of cocobolo wood It is sustainable to grow cocobolo trees in their native tropical forests because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, illegal logging and overexploitation cause much ecological damage. Thus, you need to avoid buying and using any cocobolo wood harvested in such ways. 
Manufacturing of cocobolo wood Turning cocobolo wood into furniture and musical instruments has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 
Transporting of cocobolo wood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of cocobolo wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As cocobolo wood in the US would have come a long way from Central America, it would have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood.
Usage of cocobolo wood Using cocobolo wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of cocobolo wood The end-of-life stage for cocobolo wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable products made from cocobolo wood. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a cabinet or the back of a guitar, depends on many factors, especially the forest management practices and the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing of Cocobolo Wood

It is sustainable to grow cocobolo trees in their native tropical forests because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, illegal logging and overexploitation cause much ecological damage. Thus, you need to avoid buying and using any cocobolo wood harvested in such ways. 

What Type of Wood Is Cocobolo Wood and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Cocobolo wood comes from the hardwood tree species Dalbergia retusa. It belongs to the Dalbergia genus, which also includes all rosewood species. 

The Dalbergia genus includes many species that are similarly rich in deep color, fragrant in odor, and dense in texture. Because of the shared characteristics, those tree species are commonly referred to as various types of rosewood. Cocobolo has a similar look of rich color and feel of high density. Consequently, cocobolo is also known as black rosewood or Nicaraguan rosewood

Similar to some other Dalbergia species, cocobolo trees grow slowly. On average, these small to medium-size trees take 80 years to mature

On plantations, cocobolo trees are reported with growth rates varying from 30 to 50 inches per year in the first five years. Different sites see different growth rates with dry, fertile soils having the fastest growth. 

How Sustainably Does Cocobolo Wood Grow

Even though it is sustainable to grow cocobolo trees in their native range, unsustainable harvesting practices are widespread, causing rapid population reduction. Besides, the cocobolo trees grow slowly. Thus, the forests can’t replenish fast enough regarding cocobolo trees cut down to meet the insatiable demand. 

Because of cocobolo wood’s much-loved color and fragrance quality, the trees have faced excessive and illegal felling in their native range across Central American forests. Consequently, the growing stock has plummeted while the tropical forests bear other ecological damages. 

  • Rapid population reduction: The high demand for cocobolo wood, especially in China, drives unsustainable and often illegal logging practices in tropical forests across Central America.

    Cocobolo tree populations have been reduced by 20% in the past three generations. The drastic reduction is due to overharvesting and a decline in its natural range. This timber and finished products made of it are both listed in CITES Appendix II. Cocobolo is also listed on the IUCN Red List (2020) as (being) critically endangered.

There was a genus-wide restriction on all Dalbergia species and finished products made of the timber of such trees. CITES set it in 2017 to slow down the alarming population reduction of Dalbergia species, Dalbergia retusa (i.e., cocobolo trees) included. Some of the restrictions were lifted in 2019, such as non-commercial products containing less than 10kg of restricted timber.

Cocobolo trees have poor natural regeneration. Seedlings and young saplings are scarce in the wild. They might grow in areas exposed to regular fire, but natural regeneration is limited otherwise. This nature intensifies the sustainable problem caused by the species’ rapid population reduction.

  • Slow growing rate: Cocobolo tree species grow slowly, much less productive if compared with, for example, fast-growing softwood temperate species like pine or Douglas fir

When cocobolo wood trees are grown in sustainably managed forests, the carbon sequestration and carbon storage in tree trunks and roots (as well as in timber and wood products) contribute to its being more sustainable than materials like wood plastic composite. This tree species is a good candidate for agroforestry systems. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As cocobolo wood trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan. This means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a fair amount, growing to a height of 60 feet and a trunk diameter of 2 feet.
  • Agroforestry land usage: Cocobolo trees can provide multiple benefits in agroforestry systems (i.e., the intentional combination of agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land-use practices).

Thanks to its ability to grow well on drought- and nutrient-stressed sites, cocobolo tree species can be used to restore such lands and turn them back into forests. Cocobolo trees enhance nutrient cycling because it is a nitrogen-fixing species. 

Where Is Cocobolo Wood Usually Grown

Cocobolo trees grow in tropical forests along the Central American west coast. It is a native species to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. 

Harvesting cocobolo wood from its native environment, especially when done illegally or unsustainably, can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods. 

One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

Cutting down cocobolo wood trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

Cocobolo trees’ flowers are highly attractive to bees. In Costa Rica, for example, there are up to 60 bee species visiting this species’ flowers. 

Animal displacement and biodiversity loss have a high cost, especially when it happens in this part of the world. 

Panama is one of the few countries where cocobolo trees grow. Despite its size, the country has the highest concentrations of species on the planet. Being a tiny country of merely 29340 square miles, Panama is home to as many bird species as North America put together and about 10 times more tree species. A cocobolo nature reserve in Panama, for example, is a sanctuary for all animals, from the largest wild cats to the smallest ants. 

The illegal and overlogging of cocobolo wood, fueled by high demand from Asia, in particular, is widespread and intense. 

In Panama, for example, poachers have often penetrated Indigenous Peoples’ land to extract cocobolo timber. They cut down many other trees indiscriminately to reach the prized cocobolo wood.

In Guatemala, a total amount of over 900,000 square meters of illegally-fell Dalbergia timber, including cocobolo wood, was confiscated in the three years from 2011 to 2014. 

The only way for you as a consumer to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with cocobolo wood at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests.

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Cocobolo Wood

Turning cocobolo wood into furniture and musical instruments has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 

The first step of manufacturing cocobolo wood products involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. The carbon emissions here come from electricity usage.

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into furniture. If a piece of lumber can be air-dried to the desired moisture content, no added energy is needed for this step. However, if a kiln is used, it requires extra energy, which could mean higher carbon emissions. 

Drying cocobolo wood requires time and great care. When a high heat kiln, for example, is used to rush the drying process, cocobolo timber is prone to checking, splitting, and warping.  Cocobolo trees have a tendency to grow in a crooked way, providing twisted trunks that are even more prone to warping during the drying process. 

When cocobolo logs are left to dry naturally in their native moist forests, the wood is typically ready to be used for furniture and household items only after years of drying. For example, it would take about 5 years for a 1-inch thick piece of cocobolo to “dry out” (i.e., when the moisture content reduces from 45-85% to 12-14%). As the ideal moisture content of household wood is 6%, the final drying process still requires a kiln. 

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy to replace fossil fuels. Luckily, at least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector comes from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). Other fossil-free fuel options (for running a kiln) are solar power and hydropower. 

In a low-temperature solar-powered kiln, it could take 1 month for cocobolo wood to be dried to a commercial standard. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Cocobolo Wood

Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of cocobolo wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.  

As cocobolo wood in the US would have come a long way from Central America, it would have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood, like maple or white oak

The actual emission during this stage depends on the type of vehicles used, the fuel they need, and the distance the wood travels. Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your wood suppliers how their products are transported and opt for the more sustainable option. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Cocobolo Wood

Using cocobolo wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life.

Cocobolo is one of the hardest woods, with a Janka Hardness of 2,960 lbf. It is as hard as Mun ebony and quite a bit harder than Ceylon ebony or teak. It is also extremely dense (i.e., at 1095 kg per cubic meter), much more than, for example, big-leaf mahogany

The natural oil in cocobolo wood protects it from degradation caused by environmental moisture changes and insect attacks. 

Consequently, cocobolo wood is a very durable hardwood. It could last for a lifetime provided it is properly dried and cared for. 

When cocobolo wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usage at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore, long-lasting furniture and musical instruments can be considered a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is then reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Cocobolo Wood

The end-of-life stage for cocobolo wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture or musical instruments – at the end of their life: 

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
  2. Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens.
  3. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a cocobolo wood cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller items, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, if such products are made from manufacturing wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

How Can You Buy Cocobolo Wood More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the cocobolo wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Even though it is possible to find FSC-certified cocobolo wood, the fact remains that this timber is under extreme exploitation, much of it illegally. FSC-certified recycled cocobolo wood would be the most sustainable option if you need cocobolo wood for your project. You can also opt for other woods that offer similar quality and are more environmentally friendly. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy sustainable furniture made from cocobolo wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. Cocobolo wood is, however,  an imported tropical wood. It has a much higher transporting carbon footprint than hardwoods from US temperate forests. The extreme level of cocobolo wood’s exploitation and poor natural regeneration means it is best to avoid this timber. 

If you can’t find an alternative wood for your project, source recycled cocobolo wood with sustainability certification, such as one from the Forest Stewardship Council – FSC. It would be a much better option than timber from old-growth forests. 

Most importantly, make sure you use any cocobolo wood furniture and musical instruments for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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