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Nine different hardwoods from across the globe come together in this richly decorated cabinet featuring inlays and robust decoration, revealing histories of colonialism and environmental exploitation.


Nine different hardwoods from various regions come together in this richly decorated cabinet featuring inlays and robust decoration. The piece’s oak, poplar, birch, beech, holly, ironwood, and ash grow natively in the northern hemisphere and could come from forests in Europe or North America. As essential ecosystems, forests support diverse habitats, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and release oxygen. Deforestation creates habitat and species loss and disturbs the atmospheric balance, increasing global heating. Logging of timber products accounts for 26% of forest loss worldwide. 

The exotic hardwoods in the cabinet, ebony and rosewood, originate in tropical forests of Asia or Africa. Logging in tropical forests has a greater impact on biodiversity. These bio-hotspots contain many endemic species. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging significantly contributes to global biodiversity loss. Logging is the number one driver of deforestation of tropical forests. Illegal logging of high-value hardwoods such as ebony and rosewood continues to drive overexploitation of these ecosystems. Many wealthy countries drive deforestation in other parts of the world but are regrowing forests domestically. 95% of global deforestation occurs in the tropics. Brazil and Indonesia alone account for almost half. 79% of exported deforestation ends up in countries that have stopped losing domestic forests.

Transportation also factors into environmental impact. Due to the construction date of this cabinet, shippers would likely have transported the woods using renewable energy sources such as wind. Today, this process often involves burning fossil fuels, adding to its carbon footprint. Waste, like small branches, leaves, and offcuts, are often burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Processes such as kiln drying use energy, adding to the footprint of wood products. However, producing wood products releases less carbon and consumes less energy in compared with other materials. But this does not remove potential hazards from the production process. 

This richly decorated oak cabinet features inlays in different types of wood, a technique known as Marquetry. It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that creates wood dust. Wood-dust exposure leads to a greater risk of sinonasal cancers. Workers involved in furniture manufacturing and cabinet making have a 10–20 times greater risk of nasal cancer and about 100–500 times increased risk of nasal adenocarcinoma. The highest risks have been observed among workers in the hardwood furniture industry.

Some of the materials in this cabinet represent the fruits of Dutch colonialism in the 17th century. The Dutch aims in colonizing new territories were primarily commercial. Their preference was to establish colonial governments so that the colonies could ship raw materials back to the Netherlands regularly and continuously. Materials that Europeans highly sought after included spices and tropical hardwoods.

The lumber industry can often bring jobs and money into a local area but can also push out communities and lead to social instability. In forest communities where poverty is widespread under corrupt governments, people are often exploited, and trees fall victim to illegal logging and uncontrolled trading. This is particularly acute in tropical forests where valuable hardwood trees such as ebony and rosewood grow.

This cabinet is a luxury item, an example of those found in the homes of the 17th-century Dutch middle and upper classes. Cabinets of this kind were essential furniture items in most Dutch homes – as well as in the Dutch colonies – in the 17th century. Cabinets held valuable items like linens or silverware, and their marker as status meant that cabinet-makers made special efforts in ornamenting the exteriors. Hardwood’s durability means furniture made from it can last for decades (or even centuries). Items made from wood can be easily repurposed or reused. If wood must be disposed of, it has minimal environmental impact as it is fully biodegradable.

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