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Sound Practices: The Role of Musical Instruments in Illegal Logging Industry

Even in the age of plastics, the aesthetic and resonant properties of wood make it the preferred material to craft many instruments. When an instrument is made well, it takes on a larger role in our cultural imagination. Think of the celebrated quality of 17th-century Stradivarius violins and cellos, or the timelessly modern, endlessly imitated design of the Fender Stratocaster. Then think of the music created and performed using those instruments—Bach’s Cello Suites all the way to Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” These compositions have cemented their legacy in Western culture, and they are inseparable from the instruments on which they are played. We love well-made musical instruments not only for the music they produce or for the craft required to create them; we love them because they embody a deeper connection between nature and art.

Front and back of "The Antonius" Violin by Antonio Stradivari, 1711. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain
Front and back of "The Antonius," a violin by Antonio Stradivari that used Maple, spruce, and ebony, 1711. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain
Watch "Building a Future: Forest Guardians Protect Their Land in Brazil," an "Earth Focus" segment on the Indigenous group fending off lumber poachers.

However, the state of the timber industry today is very different from when luthiers like Stradivarius were making instruments. The population of our globalized world is more than eight times as large as it was in his time, and the demand for wood is much higher worldwide. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a massive uptick in timber poaching around the globe. As of 2012, somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of the global timber trade was acquired through the black market and linked to organized crime outfits, according to a report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and Interpol. Because of the high rate of poaching from protected forests, the United Nations has called wood “the new ivory.” Although it is difficult to quantify, poached trees worldwide are estimated to be worth between $30 and $100 billion.

Beyond economic damage, the consequences of illegal lumber poaching are far-reaching. Not only does it accelerate rapid deforestation, it endangers the survival of species that live in those forest ecosystems, it reduces the amount of carbon that trees take out of the atmosphere, and it ultimately endangers the livelihoods of the local communities that live in and around these forests.

Brazilian rosewood guitar back | Still from "Earth Focus"
Dr. Cady Lancaster, a wood identification specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, shows an example of an illegally-sourced Brazilian rosewood guitar back from her wood library. | Still from "Earth Focus"

Much, though certainly not all, of global timber poaching has taken place in countries that have less governmental stability and less responsive agencies for monitoring these crimes. Around the world, impoverished people illegally cut valuable trees to earn a few dollars while most of the money goes to criminal outfits sometimes called “timber mafias,” whose illegal activities lower global timber prices by up to 16 percent and cost their home nations billions in lost annual revenue. Once the trees are cut, it can be very difficult to trace the wood to its source, especially when the logs are shipped with false documents. This makes it hard for the consumer to know whether illegally harvested wood is in the products they purchase, especially if the companies producing these goods are lax about their supply chains.

For guitar makers, the main concern right now is the future of tonewoods, certain species of tree whose wood possesses tonal properties that make them particularly well suited for use in stringed musical instruments. Different tonewoods are used for different parts of the instrument. For example, an acoustic guitar may consist of a spruce top, rosewood sides, a mahogany neck, and an ebony fingerboard. Each of these woods is sourced from different parts of the globe, and over-logging and unsustainable forest management threatens most all of them.

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Guitar makers are left with three options: stop making instruments, expand their scope of woods, or make efforts to alter the supply chain. The first option would reduce the demand for these precious woods, but the loss of musical instruments in the future would be a great loss to culture worldwide. Besides, the amount of wood that goes toward houses (frames, furniture, floorboards) dwarfs that which goes toward making guitars, so a moratorium on new guitars would not solve the larger problem.

Option two would involve seeking out alternative tonewoods, which some guitar companies have already begun. One of the most revered tonewoods, Brazilian Rosewood, is so overharvested that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has prohibited the international sale of Brazilian Rosewood since the 1960s. This of course does not prevent some illegally poached Brazilian rosewood from making its way out of the country but this is where guitar manufacturers have stepped up to the plate in recent years. For example, Fender has transitioned most of their guitars away from rosewood fingerboards to pau ferro, a wood with similar properties to rosewood that is harvested in a much more sustainable fashion. Similarly, some in the guitar industry are calling for an industry-wide moratorium on clear-cut Sitka spruce. The hope is to provide an example for other high-volume supply chains.

Watch "Building a Future: Scientists Build Lumber Library to Identify Poached Wood," an "Earth Focus" segment about an effort to curb lumber crime worldwide.

The third option available to guitar makers to effect positive change is to collaborate with countries and regions where tonewoods are harvested in order to ensure better practices for the local communities and ecosystems. The wakeup call was probably the 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raid of Gibson Guitars for illegally logged ebony from Madagascar, a violation of the Lacey Act. Since then, a number of large guitar manufacturing companies, like Taylor, Martin, Fender, and Gibson, have independently taken steps to ensure sustainable practices. Many major guitar makers now closely follow CITES regulations and work with organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council. Taylor, in particular, has been at the forefront of this push with initiatives like their Ebony Project in Cameroon and their Koa reforestation in Hawai’i. Both projects work with local communities to plant these trees and create “socially responsible value chains” that can ensure a perpetual, sustainable source of tonewoods.

Guitarmaker Steve Spalding describes his flame maple top project. | Still from "Earth Focus"
Guitarmaker Steve Spalding describes his project, a guitar made of maple. | Still from "Earth Focus"

Consumers certainly play a key role in this process, too. Guitar players need to stay educated about the problem of timber poaching and how it affects ecosystems as well as the musical instrument industry. This may ultimately require letting go of traditional tonewoods and keeping an open mind to alternative tonewoods that have been less used historically. Above all, if companies are not forthcoming about their wood sources, consumers need to ask for that information and to make it known that sustainably, responsibly, and ethically sourced wood is a non-negotiable issue.

It takes a coordinated ecosystem of regulations, builders and consumers to manage these precious woods responsibly. The various components must remain in careful balance in order for that ecosystem to persist, not unlike the delicate balance of the ecosystem in which the tree plays an invaluable role as shelter, food source and canopy. We must never forget that although this form of ancient nature holds the potential for great monetary and cultural value, it also possesses prodigious environmental value.

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