Cameroon’s embattled ebony trees get a lifeline—from guitar maker

The guitar industry has a spotty track record for sustainable wood sourcing. But one manufacturer is trying to help stave off deforestation.

Wielding a machete, Noël Nakere Dobo Nkouli hacks a path through thick vines crowding the tropical forest outside his village in Kompia, in Cameroon’s rural southeast. Every few yards, he digs a shallow hole in the rich, red soil and plants the leafy sapling of an ebony tree, an iconic indigenous hardwood species with a jet-black interior that is prized for sculptures, piano keys, furniture accents, and stringed instrument fingerboards.

Since last year, Nkouli and his neighbors in a handful of other villages in the area have planted more than 5,000 ebony trees. The trees won’t be mature enough to harvest for a century, but Nkouli sees them as an investment in future generations at a time when the forests of central Africa are quickly disappearing under pressure from agriculture and logging.

Their work is part of an ambitious reforestation effort supported by an unlikely patron: the American guitar manufacturer who equips the likes of Taylor Swift and Jason Mraz and is among Africa’s biggest commercial consumers of ebony.

Taylor Guitars, which uses Cameroonian ebony to build fretboards and bridges for each of the 160,000 guitars it makes every year, has underwritten a unique coalition of local and international ecologists to fill critical gaps in the research on ebony ecology and to oversee the planting of up to 20,000 trees by next year.

The project aims to amend the guitar industry's spotty track record on sustainable wood sourcing. In 2012, Gibson Guitars, another top manufacturer, paid more than $600,000 in criminal penalties after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found it had illegally imported ebony and rosewood from Madagascar and India. And it has caught the attention of forestry experts at the World Resources Institute, the U.S. State Department, and the World Bank as a hopeful model for restoring the hardwoods that are one of the region’s richest but most threatened natural resources.

“These trees are our heritage,” Nkouli says. “My parent’s generation could cut trees freely, and never worry about it. But today we’re realizing that if we don’t plant trees, there may be nothing left for our children. We’re very worried about the future of our forests in Cameroon.”

Fixing a rotten business

The Congo Basin is facing a rapid increase in deforestation. Cameroon is on pace to lose an area of forest the size of New Jersey by 2035, according to the Center for International Forestry Research. Forests are cleared to make way for palm oil, rubber, and cocoa plantations, as well as for small-scale slash-and-burn farms. Global timber markets in Asia, the U.S., and Europe are driving an increase in both legal and illegal logging. Meanwhile, China is helping Cameroon build a massive new deepwater port that will make it easier to export trees from across the Congo Basin.

But the country’s forest management policy—starved of funding, lacking reliable data, and fraught with corruption—is not keeping pace with those threats, according to interviews with local and international researchers, forestry officials, and leaders of forest-adjacent communities.

“What we have now is not sustainable, and that’s why the forest is disappearing,” says Samuel Nguiffo, who directs the nonprofit Center for the Environment and Development in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. “What we get from logging is absolutely nothing compared to what we’re losing.”

Ebony might offer a chance to reverse that trend. Diospyros crassiflora, the ebony species found in the Congo Basin, was first traded internationally by Portuguese colonists in the 15th century, alongside ivory and slaves. With a fine grain and natural luster, it was considered a gem among woods. But ebony tends to crack in large pieces, making it ill-suited for construction and furniture. Today it accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of Cameroon’s timber exports, dwarfed by factory-friendly species like ayous, sapelli, and tali.

Still, ebony has always stood up well to abuse by the strings and fingers of guitarists, violinists, pianists, and other musicians. Bob Taylor is a San Diego-based woodworking guru who built a cult following and a multimillion dollar company in the 1980s after Neil Young started playing his hand-made guitars, and has remained an industry kingpin since. In 2011, he heard about a run-down ebony sawmill for sale on the outskirts of Yaoundé, and saw a chance to take control of a volatile supply chain.

An individual high-end guitar can include half a dozen species of hardwoods, including exotic ones like ebony, rosewood, and mahogany that are vulnerable to overharvesting, climate change, and other threats. In recent years, Taylor says, these materials have become more expensive, harder to find, and more frequently subject to international trade regulations.

“The Gibson incident was definitely a wake-up call,” Taylor says. “Guitar makers never used to worry about where our wood came from, but now we’re watching it all go away.”

After Taylor bought the Yaoundé sawmill, it didn’t take long to find that the local ebony business was rotten to the core. Demands for bribes to rural officials and police along the trees’ path from forest to factory were routine. It was nearly impossible to trace the legal origins of trees arriving at the mill. And for each of the 300 or so trees that arrived every year, several were wasted, left in the forest to rot because their interior wood wasn’t considered dark enough.

So Taylor worked to refurbish the sawmill and crack down on shady sourcing. He met Tom Smith, director of UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute, who had worked in Cameroon for decades and knew as much about its forest ecology as Taylor knew about guitars. They found themselves circling a shared quandary: The urgent need to regrow tropical hardwoods in the Congo Basin was hampered because scientists knew more about how to cut the trees down than how to grow them back.

Smith and Taylor decided that, especially with the sex appeal conferred by its use in guitars, ebony could work well as a case study in developing new methods to restore the forest’s hardwoods.

“Guitars aren’t going to cause the demise of the rain forest, but they’re a way to bring people in and raise the importance of wood products,” Smith says. “The ebony project is an opening to develop more sustainable restoration efforts for rain forests writ large.”

How to grow ebony

Only female ebony trees produce fruit, and only during one month of the year. So any attempt to grow the trees at a large scale would need a more efficient means of mass reproduction. For that, Smith enlisted the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, one of Africa’s leading nonprofit research organizations. At an IITA lab in Yaoundé, a team of plant biologists is working on techniques to grow tens of thousands of ebony clones in test tubes from tiny clippings of hand-picked mature trees.

Zac Tchoundjeu, a veteran Cameroonian forestry researcher, argued in favor of offering a mix of high-value fruit trees alongside the ebony as a short-term financial incentive for farmers. He selected the pilot villages, including Kompia, helped them to build custom tree nurseries, and carried out trainings on how to plant and care for the saplings. He targeted plots of community-managed public forest that had already been degraded by logging and agriculture—land primed for restoration.

“If we plant more ebony here, the forest becomes higher value and is more likely to be protected,” says Vincent Deblauwe, an ecologist who is leading IITA’s ebony research.

Meanwhile, the IITA scientists are working to better understand how ebony fits into the Congo Basin ecosystem, through a survey of more than 1,000 trees across the country. They found that the fate of ebony is closely linked to mammal species like West African elephants and antelope that rely on the tree’s fruits as a food source and act as seed dispersers. Those animals are often targeted by bushmeat hunters, meaning that poaching, Deblauwe says, “is a really under-appreciated threat to the forest’s health.”

The survey has also yielded some good news. Since 1998, Diospyros crassiflora had been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But in 2017, Deblauwe and his colleagues presented evidence to an IUCN panel—including satellite data that didn’t exist in the earlier assessment—that there may be up to 30 million mature ebony trees spread across the Congo Basin, many more than were previously understood to exist.

As a result, in March the listing was upgraded to “vulnerable,” meaning that the tree’s future is brighter in the Congo Basin than in countries like Madagascar and Sri Lanka where other ebony species remain over-exploited.

Still, planting a few thousand trees won’t save the Congo Basin forest if countries like Cameroon don’t take more aggressive action to curb illegal logging and other threats, says Sean DeWitt, director of the Global Restoration Initiative at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” he says. “But from the beginning they’ve been focused on getting a replicable model, so it could inspire other companies and other supply chains.”

For music lovers in the next century to enjoy the tones of high-quality wood instruments, Taylor says, the time to plant the trees is now.

“I want people to be able to play guitars like this in a hundred years,” he says. “We have a chance to get it right in Cameroon.”

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