Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iron Tree "Under Threat"

Conservationists fear a rare and unusual tree faces extinction from unchecked logging.
By Zamin Tairov

Samed Mamedov, 71, has spent 50 years carving artefacts from the resilient wood of the “iron tree” in southern Azerbaijan.

 

Everything in the tiny studio next to his house is made from the tree, which the locals call “demir-agach”: the windows, the doors, the axe and spade handles, and innumerable figurines and sculptures lining the walls.

 

Mamedov’s latest work, a sculpture of a man and a woman inside a sarcophagus, has been highly praised. He explains that the couple exemplifies human love and also the toughness and eternal life of the tree, while the coffin symbolises the likely extinction of the demir-agach.

 

The trouble with this rare, beautiful and exceptionally strong tree is that its very toughness is making it a target for intensive illegal logging.

 

The demir-agach, also known as Persian ironwood or Parrotia persica, is a prized species found in the thick forests of the Talysh region, in both southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran. Specialists believe that the tree dates back at least 6,000 years, surviving the most recent ice age and submersion by waters that would later become the Caspian Sea.

 

It grows to a height of 25 metres and has a box-shaped fruit. The golden-brown leaves of the tree are extremely beautiful, especially when they are lit up by the evening sun.

 

But the tree is most famous for its extremely hard wood. Sureddin Hamidov, a professional tree expert, explained that similar plants grow in India, Malaysia and Brazil, but have softer trunks. “This miracle only occurs here, and nowhere else,” he said proudly.

 

The wood is so solid that it is often compared to iron. The great French writer Alexandre Dumas was impressed by the tree when he visited the Caucasus in the 19th century. And local legend has it that a woman once killed a tiger with a stake made out of the wood.

 

Local people wear amulets made out of the tree, and wedding guests wish bridal couples a marriage with “the firmness of the demir-agach”. The fruits are used as medicinal cures for haemorrhages and haemorrhoids.

 

All this is under threat, however, as loggers are felling the ironwood tree for its timber.

 

The hard-wearing and long-lasting wood sells for at least three times the price of other timber in Azerbaijan. It is a popular material for axe- and spade-handles and flooring, and is particularly resistant to fire. Local people chop down the tree and use it for fences and sheep-pens.

 

Environmentalist Vidadi Yusubov told IWPR that things made of ironwood will last hundreds of years without deteriorating. “It takes hours to cut down a single demir-agach tree with an axe,” he said.

 

Hamidov told IWPR that the number of trees has halved since 1991, when there were more than 50,000. He said that even though the tree has been put on the endangered species list, the government has done nothing to protect it.

 

Hidayat Navruzov, a local official from Azerbaijan’s environment ministry, denies that the government has been inactive, saying more than 30 people were fined for illegally felling of ironwood last year and in the first five months of this year. He said new trees were being planted as part of a new National Programme for Forest Regeneration and Propagation, begun last year.

 

Agagardash Garashov, who heads the Masally forest district, said 125 hectares of new forests were planted in 2003, and another 50 ha in the first five months of this year.

 

Malik Kazimov, who heads Friends of Nature, a local environmental group, believes this is not enough and the government is not taking the specific threat to the ironwood tree sufficiently seriously. He says local people need to be given incentives to stop them cutting the trees down.

 

In the village of Ostapia, the sculptor Samedov has no doubt that the ironwood tree will survive. “The demir-agach is a divine tree, protected by God,” he said.

 

Zamin Tairov is deputy editor of Cenub xeverleri (Southern News) newspaper in Massaly.