See The Tree, How Big Its Grown

Music instrument manufacturers are a source pleasure for players and non-players alike. Without them, sound would not be as heavenly or music as good. Yet some hurt the environment. Wood that used to be plentiful, for instance, can become over-harvested in the process of creating such wondrous tools. Fortunately, conservation efforts are being made within the music industry.

The African blackwood tree, also known as mpingo in Swahili, is an internationally valued source of hardwood that grows in twenty six African countries. The natives make carvings from the wood, which contribute to the local economy of these remote villages. Mpingo trees take seventy to one-hundred years to fully mature, at which point the wood is primarily harvested to manufacture clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes.

Mpingo is excellent for woodwinds because of its ability to cope with the moisture created by the musician, and its capacity to be carved without chipping. The wood contributes to the unique tone and resonance of these instruments.

Unfortunately, the high demand for the wood has caused mpingo to disappear at an alarming rate, which is environmentally and economically devastating for the surrounding villages.

In an attempt to counter this deforestation, a new initiative has emerged that is bound to help everyone in the music chain, including the musicians that play the instruments made with mpingo, the manufacturers that produce them, and, ultimately, the public that hears them. It is appropriately called Sound and Fair.
Sound and Fair was established “to realize a sustainable trade in African blackwood through a fully-certified chain of custody linking village communities in Tanzania to woodwind instrument musicians in the West.” It also collaborates with the Mpingo Conservation Project (MCP) to increase awareness about sound environmental practices.

In the regions where African blackwood trees grow, particularly in Tanzania, the natives are vulnerable to exploitation. Loggers enter the forest and hire the locals under unfair wages. They prompt the locals to cut down the trees without any regard to the land. The natives are usually forced to comply since they live in isolated forests with few job opportunities. Plus, the government owns the land, so the Tanzanian villagers have little control to prevent loggers from harvesting the trees. With the trees becoming scarce, the economic opportunities for the villagers are little to none.

Sound and Fair avowedly strives to create a communal management of the forests with the guidance of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. It is nationally represented in more than 50 countries around the world. In particular, an FSC certification ensures that the chain of wood supplied for instrument manufacturing has been harvested responsibly from verifiable sources.

In fact, many villages in southeast Tanzania have helped the MCP. In December 2009, the Kikole village in the Kilwa District of Tanzania oversaw the first harvest of mpingo under the guidance of the FSC. Better harvesting translated into higher profits. As the supply of the African blackwood is dwindling, its higher price helped lift the Kikole village out of its poverty and make it proud.

The FSC carefully tracks that the manufacturing process of the mpingo upholds their certification standards. For instance, after the harvest, the timber was dried for nearly a year. The wood was then shipped from the Kikole village to the FSC-certified Sandali Wood Industries sawmill, located in the port city Tanga in Tanzania. The sawmill then processes the timber that is converted into woodwind instrument billets. The billets are manufactured and exported by FSC-certified Klicksi Ltd into the UK, where they are delivered to Hanson Clarinets, the biggest manufacturer of clarinets there.
Both European and American retailers will be able to buy high quality instruments that have been FSC-certified in 2011, when Hanson clarinets launches its new production line. Whereas illegally felled trees cannot be traced, Hanson’s clarinets can be linked back to a source that is sustainable.

Other instrument manufacturers are also taking similar steps. For example, small business owner and handcrafted snare-drum maker Greg Gaylor gets his timber from a local lumber supplier with sustainable business practices. Furthermore, the Les Paul Exotics by Gibson Guitar Corporation is a line of six guitars made from certified wood, and a portion of their proceeds is donated to the Rainforest Alliance. Mariner Guitars has developed a guitar made from Paulownia wood, which grows back quickly after being harvested. Paulownia wood only takes seven years to mature, wheres mahogany takes over forty years.

In time, it is likely that music players and businesses will become much more aware of the environment. Guitar players, the most numerous breed of playing musicians anywhere, could especially learn from woodwind players.
By Minden Jones

Sound and Fair

Mpingo Conservation Project

Forest Stewardship Council



One Reply to “See The Tree, How Big Its Grown”

  1. Great information–hope the story spreads widely and instrument manufacturers follow Hanson’s lead on sustainability.

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