This is the second story in a four-part series about how foreign timber companies, Tea Party groups, and Gibson Guitar have turned illegal logging into a Republican cause célèbre. Read part 1, part 3, and part 4.
On August 24, federal agents knocked on the doors of Gibson Guitar headquarters and factories in Nashville, Tenn., and seized large quantities of imported wood. The company, famous for its Les Paul guitars, had apparently aroused suspicion for importing guitar fingerboards from India under false pretences — claiming the wood was “veneer” when it was allegedly sawn lumber exported in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits trafficking in illegally harvested plants and animals. On further investigation, according to an affidavit in the case, agents found evidence that Gibson had allegedly committed similar offenses 11 previous times.
These were serious accusations, especially because Gibson was already facing a civil action brought by the federal government for allegedly importing illegally logged wood from Madagascar — and had already been raided in that case. Although not all facts in the case are known, a filing by the federal government suggests that Gibson officials knew that the wood they were importing was off limits. The filing quotes a Gibson employee who visited Madagascar in 2008 and reported back in an email:
The true Ebony species preferred by Gibson Musical Instruments is found only in Madagascar (Diospyros perrieri). This is a slow-growing tree species with very little conservation protection and supplies are considered to be highly threatened in its native environment due to over exploitation … All legal timber and wood exports are PROHIBITED because of wide spread corruption and theft of valuable woods like rosewood and ebony.
In other words, Gibson officials apparently knew that the wood came from what they called a “grey market,” but, according to the federal suit, they imported it anyway.
What’s worse, the company appears to have continued exporting the ebony even after Madagascar’s 2009 coup, which led to prolonged lawlessness and caused the United States to cut off aid to the country (including conservation aid). In the aftermath of the coup, Chinese logging gangs pillaged Madagascar’s national parks, focusing on high-value export species like ebony. The BBC and other news outlets documented severe abuses by logging operations, including slaughtering endangered wildlife. In one notorious incident, conservation researchers found dozens of dead lemurs that had been butchered for bush meat.
A report by the advocacy groups Environmental Investigation Agency and Global Witness documented new beds made out of Madagascar wood on sale in China for more than $1 million. That would be huge money for a developing country like Madagascar, but only a tiny fraction of it went to the locals: The investigation found that less than 1 percent of the value of logged wood went to benefit Malagasys, as citizens of Madagascar are known.
The situation in Madagascar is typical: Globally, illegal logging costs developing nations close to $10 billion annually in lost assets and revenues, according to the World Bank. For these reasons, forest nations have begged developed countries to enforce their own laws against trade in illegally logged goods.
Last October, Madagascar’s forest director, Julien Noel Rakotoarisoa, appealed to China to bring its laws into line with the United States, Europe, and other countries. “If they could … forbid importation, that would be a big step towards improving the situation,” he told the BBC.
As a result of the deteriorating conditions in Madagascar, many companies pulled back from the country and sought other sources of wood that they felt certain were harvested sustainably and complied with the Lacey Act’s import rules. Here’s what Christian Martin, chairman and CEO of Martin & Co., maker of Martin guitars, told NPR about the case:
There was a coup. What we heard was the international community has come to the conclusion that the coup created an illegitimate government. That’s when we said, “Okay, we cannot buy any more of this wood” … I think [the Lacey Act] is a wonderful thing. I think illegal logging is appalling. It should stop. And if this is what it takes unfortunately to stop unscrupulous operators, I’m all for it. It’s tedious, but we’re getting through it.
Gibson, for its part, insists that its purchases from Madagascar have complied with U.S. and Malagasy law. A company attorney told NPR that the recent raid seized wood imported legally from India, and that the company stopped importing wood from Madagascar in 2009. Meanwhile, Henry Juszkiewicz, the CEO, has launched a PR campaign aimed at mobilizing right wing groups and media in defense of his company’s alleged illegal activities.
This effort to paint illegal wood smuggling as a patriotic act may seem improbable, but it quickly resonated beyond all expectations with the Tea Party and conservative media, ultimately reaching House Speaker John Boehner and the top ranks of the Republican Party.
Editors’ Note — full disclosure: Glenn Hurowitz is currently doing communications work for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is campaigning to protect the Lacey Act from corporate, Tea Party, and Republican attacks. He wrote these articles as a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit that also works to stop illegal logging.
We didn’t post this information when this article was first published, and we should have. We’ve appended it as of Sept. 28, 2011.