Rosewood: The Blood Diamond of Music Wood

June 28th, 2017

By Tom Bedell

Wherever Mother Nature has given a place and its people a natural resource that is coveted by humankind, incentives for over-exploitation and corruption have unfortunately often followed.

Petroleum, diamonds, silver, gold, and sandalwood are well-known examples. The rich red timber of tropical rosewood species (Dalbergia spp.) has joined this club of coveted materials.

It all begins with demand: Like precious gems and metals, rosewood is a material that customers are willing to pay disproportionate amounts of money for, relative to the local economy in the places that it grows. If those places suffer from weak governance, low observance of the rule of law, economic inequality and poverty, and widespread corruption, the potential for overexploitation, conflict and corruption rapidly becomes a reality.

Unfortunately, those socio-economic and political conditions are common in the places where rosewood grows and is logged, from the forest frontiers of the Amazon basin, Central America, the hinterlands of West and Central Africa, the Mekong River basin, and on the island of Madagascar, sometimes known as “the Eighth Continent” for its unique ecological biodiversity.

All of these conditions have made rosewood so vulnerable to over-exploitation that combined, over the past two decades, with rapid expansion of globalized trade in natural resources and the dizzying economic rise of China’s middle class, a “perfect storm” is threatening the fate of rosewood forests worldwide.

This was the challenge that faced the 17th meeting of the “Conference of the Parties” to the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species”—CITES COP-17 for short—when 183 countries that are members of the CITES treaty, gathered at their triennial meeting last Fall in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Despite a historical reluctance of governments to extend CITES regulatory controls to commercial timber species, COP-17 looked at the snowballing rosewood crisis and took the unprecedented step of unanimously listing the entire genus Dalbergia (which includes all true rosewoods). CITES’s stock in trade since it came in to being in the 1970s, has been animals on the verge of extinction, like African elephants, rhinos, and tigers…now it includes rosewood.

Skyrocketing demand for all rosewood and rosewood-like timber for replicas of imperial Chinese furniture (known as hongmu) is what drove CITES to act: an overwhelming majority of rosewood is logged for the hongmu trade in China. But some species of rosewood are also key tonewoods for the building of fine guitars and other musical instruments, and the acoustic guitar industry is now grappling with the fallout from the CITES rosewood listings.

Rosewood is uniquely beautiful. It’s magnificent coloration and grain character are stunning in exotic furniture; the tonal characteristics of some species make them the most coveted of all acoustic tonewoods. It is the “Blood Music Wood”!

Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) was heavily threatened over 60 years ago. The Brazilian government responded, imposing restrictions in the late 1960s on the export of rosewood trees. After CITES came into being, Brazilian rosewood was listed in CITES “Appendix I” (international trade totally prohibited) in 1992. The 2008 amendments to the U.S. Lacey Act, which extended criminal sanctions for the import of illegal wild animal species to timber species, added teeth to enforcement in the United States.

As a result, there is thought to be very little illegal trade in Brazilian rosewood, or of instruments made from this highly-coveted species. The “Guitar Passport” issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, pursuant to the CITES listing of timber species used in guitars, facilitates transport and sale of instruments accompanied by appropriate paperwork. (In the case of Brazilian rosewood, these papers must establish ownership of the specimen in question prior to the CITES listing of the species in 1992.)

Madagascar rosewood (Dalbergia spp. endemic to Madagascar, including D. baronii, D. greveana, D. madagascariensis, and D. monticola) is a different story. Madagascar has suffered great economic and political turmoil for decades, since gaining independence from France in 1960, and a coup in 2009. All of that combined with the booming demand for rosewood coming from China, set the stage for mass pillage of rosewood across the island’s biologically unique jungles.

Government officials, from municipalities up to the President’s office, were deeply involved in the rosewood “gold rush” of those years, and many continue to be involved to this day. CITES listed the entire Madagascar genus Dalbergia in 2013 and effectively prohibited international trade (a zero quota remains in place today), but the only thing that slowed down the assault on Madagascar’s rosewood forests was the virtual extirpation (local extinction) of these beautiful trees in every accessible location across the island.

This is not surprising in a poor country with a famously weak and corrupt governance structure: the Chinese furniture industry is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for one log, that was stolen from the remote jungle and delivered to a collection site for less than $50. As the bribes are paid and the logs are smuggled into containers, the profits multiply at every stage of custody. With an average gross national income (GNI) per capita of just $1.18 a day in 2012 (among the world’s lowest) and few sources of cash income in rural areas, local people have no choice but to work for the loggers.

Do not make the mistake of believing that these local loggers are “profiting,” however, from the back-breaking work of cutting and hauling the heavy rosewood logs from the jungle. They are paid only a pittance of a wage, and their forests are left depleted of their most valuable trees once the traders’ ships vanish across the Indian Ocean. Not even the remote and iconic Masoala National Park has provided safe haven—the Park’s eastern flank is riddled with logging trails, and mature rosewood trees are virtually impossible to find there. Some loggers have even returned to dig up stumps remaining from the rosewood rush of 2009-2011.

The nations of the Mekong river basin in Southeast Asia, bordering China, have also found the economic carrot just too much to resist. The most valuable rosewood species have been hunted to virtual extinction in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma’s forests—the last remaining large forest block in mainland Southeast Asia—is increasingly under assault. For several years, an actual shooting war has raged in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park between logging gangs who cross the border from Cambodia and Thai park and military authorities.

One nation stands tall on the protection and management of its rosewood resource: India. At a recent auction I attended for rosewood logs, managed by the Indian Forest Service, the logs were laid out on a huge field. Each log was evaluated and labeled for its value. Potential buyers were invited to inspect the logs and determine if they would like to place a bid above the minimum price established by the government. No private sales of Indian rosewood are allowed in India. The tonewood company was delighted to acquire 10 promising logs. The wood was magnificent.

We thus have two successful examples of economic, governmental, and private enterprise collaboration supporting commerce while protecting the rosewood forests and providing an economic return to the people that live among the forests—Brazil and India. With all of the corruption surrounding much the world’s remaining rosewood-bearing forests, the challenge of enforcement has proven daunting. The 2016 CITES listing provides some impetus for more effective action, but the challenges are great.

Since it is very difficult to distinguish among various Dalbergia species (once removed from their harvest location), the CITES COP determined that all Dalbergia must be listed in Appendix II. Thankfully, they extended the 10 KG amendment for musical instruments, which removes consumers from the burdens of the new regulations (with the exception of Brazilian rosewood). Instrument owners can freely travel with their individual instruments throughout the world without permits. It is commercial activity which is regulated.

The CITES rosewood listings came into force three months after the COP’s decisions, on January 2, 2017. While this rapid entry into enforcement was in accordance with CITES rules, the sweeping nature of the rosewood listings caught both governments and industry by surprise. Efforts by both businesses and regulatory agencies to adjust and accommodate are ongoing, with many painful transitional efforts here in the United States and throughout the world. Both government agencies and businesses found themselves with the obligation of monitoring, managing and executing the new regulations before procedures were understood or, in some cases, formulated.

Musical instrument companies in the United States were trapped with products already in production that would not ship prior to the January 2, 2017 deadline. Standards for establishing Master Files of existing “Pre-Convention” inventory, and new Master Files for “Post-Convention” material had to be worked out. Production was affected, shipments were delayed and U.S. Customs was caught in the middle of an awkward transition. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been tied up in disrupted commerce and bureaucratic chaos.

Breedlove and Bedell Guitars have lost over $1 million in first quarter sales due to CITES-related backorders, which of course, impeded re-orders during the second quarter. It has been a challenging first half of 2017 as businesses and government regulatory agencies struggle to get workable, viable, processes in place to support the efficient transactions for importing and exporting products containing Dalbergia.

It is getting better, though. Over the next several months, we will have all adapted and learned how to work together to make these new regulations work.

Could the process have been handled better? Absolutely. Three months was unrealistic for execution and enforcement of such a sweeping CITES listing affecting businesses and supply chains in so many countries. It created unnecessary burdens on both governments and businesses.

Was the CITES Appendix II listing necessary? Absolutely. Without taking this bold action there would be no change in the devastation of the world’s rosewood species and the forests in which they grow. Too many governments have turned a blind eye, since there is so much money to be made smuggling rosewood into China. The guitar industry is not a root cause of the global rosewood crisis, but it is going to have to figure out how to live with the new rules that were necessitated by this crisis.

The CITES listing is already having a significant impact. Guitar companies are rapidly changing components on their instruments to limit the use of Dalbergia. This is adding momentum to implementation of the 2008 Lacey Act Timber Amendments, and analogous provisions passed by Australia and the European Union in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The outcome, we can all hope, will be to level the playing field so that all companies throughout the world sourcing wood will be held accountable for the legality of its harvest.

Today, those of us in the guitar supply chain feel the burdens of change. It is costing us money. But in the long run, it will be a monument to rainforest sustainability and the positive role we all played in making it happen—willingly or otherwise.

Tom Bedell is the owner and operator of Bedell Guitars and Breedlove Guitars. The two companies sell these handmade instruments through a network of 300 music retailers across the USA and internationally through distributors. Bedell and Breedlove craft their instruments with no wood from clear-cut trees, ever. The two companies have the largest stock of Brazilian rosewood tonewood sets harvested and exported during the ’50s and ’60s to Spain. This rosewood was later exported to the workshop in Bend, OR. All is fully documented and CITES and Lacey Act compliant. To learn more visit www.bedellguitars.com or www.breedloveguitars.com or call 541-385-8339.

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