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New Rosewood Trade Restrictions Challenge Guitar Industry

...early in 2017, require guitar makers to document where, when, and how imported rosewood logs and boards were procured, and to provide similar documentation to secure export permits for finished rosewood guitars. Widespread concern that the tropical hardwood was being harvested to the point of extinction, primarily to supply a burgeoning Chinese furniture industry, prompted CITES to take action. The officials placed regulations on all rosewood species, because unscrupulous loggers had exploited the fact that rosewood species are difficult to differentiate, passing off illegally cut wood as a previously unprotected species.

CITES restrictions on woods are nothing new for the guitar industry. Since 1992, Brazilian rosewood has been listed under the CITES “appendix 1,” which bans all global trade. Guitar makers who build and export instruments with Brazilian rosewood are required to document that the wood was cut prior to the 1992 ban. Big leaf mahogany, another wood widely used in guitar construction, is listed under the less restrictive CITES 2 appendix, which requires guitar makers to document that the imported logs and boards were procured according to global regulations, but does not require documentation for finished guitars.

What makes the new rosewood regulations challenging is the documentation on finished instruments. Better than half of all acoustic guitars traversing national borders—millions of units annually—now must be accompanied by paperwork that details the quantity of rosewood used, measured in cubic meters, and the complete chain of custody of the wood, from the time the log was cut until it left the production line. Nick Colesanti, Martin Guitar’s vice president of supply chain management, says that tough requirements on Brazilian rosewood instruments didn’t pose much of a problem because production was so limited. However, the thousands of rosewood instruments that are exported annually from the Martin plant will require “an enormous amount of paperwork.” He’s sympathetic to the goals of the rules, stating, “We’ve been in business 183 years and we want to be in business for another 183 years, so we support sustainable forests.” However, he adds, “They will require tighter control of our raw material inventory and a lot of time and effort for compliance.”

Bob Taylor, president of Taylor Guitars, is in favor the new regulations but also acknowledges that the additional permitting requirements will add to guitar makers’ costs. “The whole point of this listing is to hamper business, which will hopefully hamper cutting,” he says. “It’s the best plan I can think of to slow down the cutting, and especially the illegal cutting. Guitars still will flow, but the added documentation will make it harder. My sense is that for more expensive guitars there may be enough profit to pay for the permits, but cheaper guitars may not be worth the trouble. It could mean those guitars will now be made from other timbers.”

Actual enforcement of CITES rules is left up to individual countries, and in the U.S., the Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged with implementing them. Colesanti has been meeting with Fish and Wildlife representatives in what he says is a “collaborative, problem solving” atmosphere. He’s hoping that they can arrive at rules that protect rosewood forests without overburdening guitar makers. “It’s a long process,” he says.

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