Pernambuco trees, which grow only in Brazil, have provided the preferred hardwood for bows of string instruments for centuries. Photo source: Toronto Star.

In Brief | In November, global conservation leaders considered new rules covering pernambuco, the Brazilian wood that is used in the bows of stringed instruments, that would have imposed heavy burdens on all trade and movement of the wood—even in existing instruments. The ruling would have been devastating to musicians and orchestras, without creating ways to conserve the wood. But thanks to work by the League of American Orchestras and a broad coalition of stakeholders, new regulations create sustainable approaches to conserving the wood while supporting musicians and orchestras.

From November 14 to 25 in 2022, delegates from 184 countries gathered in Panama for the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). One of the proposals on the table could have had serious implications for the music business: Proposal 49 suggested that pernambuco, a hardwood, be listed on Appendix I, the highest level of protection.

Pernambuco (paubrasilia echinata) has been the preferred material for bows of high-quality stringed instruments since the late 18th century. Its unusual combination of density and flexibility was discovered by François-Xavier Tourte, the father of the modern bow. The tree, which grows only in Brazil, has been decimated over the last century due to deforestation in the Atlantic rain forest. In 1992, it was placed on Brazil’s own endangered species list, and in 2007, at CoP14, it was listed on CITES Appendix II. That CITES listing meant that trade in the wood was subject to international controls and regulations. During the 2007 debate over the Appendix II listing, the music industry—including the League of American Orchestras, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), and the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI, an organization of bowmakers)—mobilized and helped devise a compromise that limited the listing to “logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets and unfinished wood and articles used for the fabrication of bows for stringed musical instruments.” Finished bows traveling internationally or being sold across borders were thus not subject to CITES controls or permitting.

The 2022 proposal, submitted by Brazil, would have transferred pernambuco from Appendix II to Appendix I—the highest level of protection—with an annotation: “All parts, derivatives and finished products, including bows of musical instruments, except musical instruments and their parts, composing traveling orchestras, and solo musicians carrying musical passports in accordance with Res. 16.8.” The proposal referenced a law enforcement initiative carried out in Brazil in 2021, which found a significant level of illegal trade in the wood, bow blanks, and finished bows made in Brazil. The exception requested by Brazil was unclear, and technically not allowed by the underlying CITES treaty, which requires that all parts and derivatives of plants listed under Appendix I be subject to controls.

When the new proposals governing pernambuco—which would have drastically affected the music sector—were released, the League of American Orchestras, as part of an international coalition of over two dozen music industry stakeholders, mobilized to study it.

In negotiations led by Brazil, the European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, the U.S., and other participants in a small working group, a path forward was achieved for stringed instrument bows made of pernambuco wood, setting in motion new conservation actions and controls for exports from Brazil—where the species is grown—without introducing new permit requirements for global travel and trade with finished bows that have already moved outside of Brazil. The new Pernambuco policy (PDF), approved on November 25 and going into effect 90 days later, will keep the species in its current Appendix II listing, with revised rules that place CITES permit requirements on finished bows (and all Pernambuco wood) the first time they leave Brazil (exports). Finished bows that are “re-exported” globally (meaning the bow is crossing a border after the Pernambuco wood has previously left Brazil in some form as an export) remain exempt from new CITES permit requirements. The proposal is also accompanied by a new set of action items for continued discussion and voluntary enactment in the next three years before the next CITES meeting. These recommendations include efforts to: create systems for documenting the legal origins of existing and new bows; support capacity-building for enforcement and conservation efforts within Brazil and among importing countries; and identify plantation-grown Pernambuco that could be certified for long-term sustainable use.

Bow tip using pernambuco wood. Photo courtesy of L'atelier d'Arthur.

Causes for Concern

When the initial proposal was released earlier last year, the League, as part of an international coalition of over two dozen music industry stakeholders, mobilized to study it. They collaborated on a response, communicated to their national governments, that stressed their commitment to the conservation of pernambuco but urged “an alternate policy solution that would more effectively sustain the species while avoiding damage to the music sector.”

Musicians, bowmakers, and music industry affinity groups are committed to conservation and sustainability goals and finding solutions for pernambuco.

Adoption of the proposal, the stakeholders pointed out, would have drastically affected the music sector. Non-commercial international travel by musicians carrying pernambuco bows would become subject to CITES permitting, inspection, and credentialing requirements at global ports. Bows would need detailed provenance information, showing that they were made from wood that was harvested before the species came under CITES protection in 2007, as is now required for instruments containing such protected species such as Brazilian rosewood and ivory; most musicians are unlikely to have such documentary evidence.

In addition, international commercial trade, including sales, resales, and repairs, would have been severely restricted. The trade in bows, which are made in limited numbers by artisanal craftspeople, is necessarily global, and an Appendix I listing permits trade only under limited circumstances and after the completion of challenging paperwork requirements. Such limits would jeopardize the lifetime investments that musicians and makers have in existing bows; also, repairs of existing bows, which are often purchased internationally and returned to their makers for upkeep, would become virtually impossible.

The enforcement requirements would have been overwhelming for agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its global counterparts. Further, the stakeholders stressed, regulating non-commercial travel or the buying and selling of existing bows would not have any significant impact on the conservation of the species—which is the purpose of a CITES listing.

“We want pernambuco to survive and our musical traditions to survive. We need to find a balance between the two,” says Lynn Hannings, a Maine bowmaker who is vice president of the International Alliance of Violin and Bowmakers for Endangered Species.

Musicians, bowmakers, and music industry affinity groups are committed to conservation and sustainability goals and finding solutions for pernambuco. In 2000, an international group of bowmakers formed IPCI to plant new pernambuco trees in Brazil; the organization has planted 250,000 seedlings. It has also funded scientific studies about the tree. Lynn Hannings, a Maine bowmaker who has been active in the conservation and information endeavors through IPCI, is vice president of a new organization, International Alliance of Violin and Bowmakers for Endangered Species, which is working on conservation initiatives and communication around all kinds of endangered species that have historically been important to the music community. One recent effort was to inform the musician and bowmaking community about the 2021 investigations that revealed illegal trade of pernambuco in Brazil and urge them to avoid participation in any activities that break the law and threaten the species.

“One big change since 2007 is that there is now a CITES working group with many participants,” Hannings says. “We’re there to honor the conservation efforts of CITES but also to share and bring forward the many unintended consequences of an Appendix I listing. We want Pernambuco to survive and our musical traditions to survive. We need to find a balance between the two.”

Building Coalitions

In October, the UN Secretariat for CITES issued its assessments of the proposals for CoP19. It recommended that Proposal 49 be rejected, pointing out its technical flaws, and noting, among other issues, that Brazil had not supplied recent data about the status of the species in Brazil. “The recommendation was not binding, but it was influential,” says Heather Noonan, the League’s Vice President for Advocacy. Brazil could not alter and resubmit its proposal, but it could offer an alternative listing proposal during negotiations that narrows the scope of the proposed new CITES controls. Noonan was in Panama for the two weeks of negotiations and coordinated an expansive working group of 55 global music stakeholders, including the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada and the International Federation of Musicians, that went on record in response to the proposal and contacted their governmental representatives to the treaty talks. (Read a PDF of the statement.)

“Working with great partners like the League of American Orchestras and creating a coalition, we are able to communicate what we think is a reasonable outcome” concerning rules for protected species used in musical instruments, says Mary Luehrsen, director of Public Affairs and Government Relations at the National Association of Music Merchants.

Musical instrument groups were concerned that Brazil might offer an Appendix II proposal that would cover finished products, including bows. Without an exemption for non-commercial travel, Noonan says, it would have many of the same impacts as an Appendix I listing. “Our coalition partners at the Association of British Orchestras, for instance, were actively engaged in conversations on these highly technical points with their government authorities leading up to the discussions, creating a foundational understanding of the problem that needed to be solved.”

In recent years, traveling orchestras have more experience navigating the existing international controls on objects incorporating endangered species. The League has successfully worked to improve CITES policies at prior negotiations and also helps orchestras understand how to comply with existing rules. When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra traveled to Slovenia, Germany and Austria in the summer of 2022, its Manager of Orchestra Operations Kaylene Beal started the process of acquiring a CITES permit for the orchestra’s cargo five months in advance. “Every instrument and bow that travels in cargo must be photographed and evaluated for materials,” she says. “It’s an expensive and time-consuming process. I have a 20-pound book with all the documents, covering 134 objects. Over the years, the requirements of what we have to provide for the permit have grown more stringent: this year, for example, a bow that had been approved in the past needed an additional document. That means more time, and more money for an appraiser.” The United States, represented at the CITES negotiations by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, successfully led the adoption of two proposals to streamline the permit process required for noncommercial movement of musical instruments (read the PDF) in use by musicians that travel internationally with instruments that have been made with species now under protection. The League and global partners welcomed U.S. leadership on these next steps toward permit improvements, which were adopted by consensus and initiate consideration of new simplified procedures and electronic permitting strategies that could be adopted at the next Conference of the Parties and would measurably improve opportunities to travel and tour with musical instruments.

Music stakeholders were represented in formal working group discussions in Panama in November 2022 by, from left, John Bennett (International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative), Heather Noonan (League of American Orchestras), Fanny Rayre Menard (French Musical Instrument Organization).

Heather Noonan, the League of American Orchestras’ VP for Advocacy , speaks during the recent CITES debates, which were publicly live-streamed to a global audience.

If pernambuco bows were listed on either Appendix I or Appendix II, Beal says, “There would be steep costs involved in getting up-to-date documentation, including the legal statements [about the source of the materials]—four or five documents for each bow.” On the 2022 tour, 86 percent of the bows were made of pernambuco.

The slate of protected species proposals under consideration by global negotiators was massive, and talks regarding the pernambuco proposal unfolded over the course of two weeks. The League and other music industry representatives met with delegates throughout the deliberations in Panama and presented an informational session organized by music groups from across the globe and sponsored by NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Mary Luehrsen, NAMM’s Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations, says, “Working with great partners like the League of American Orchestras and creating a coalition, we are able to go in and have a clear voice and communicate what we think is a reasonable outcome.”

“CITES is intended to support sustainable trade, and we’ve built awareness over the years among decisionmakers who know how important it is to support international cultural activity alongside conservation,” says League of American Orchestras Vice President for Advocacy Heather Noonan.

The coalition supports the solution, which focuses attention on the source of the wood, including the implementation of export permit requirements, a comprehensive inventory of the status of the species, the creation of a process to establish traceability for raw pernambuco and finished bows, and increased resources to promote conservation and sustainable use.

The issue of sustainable use of pernambuco is real. Although the number of artisanal bowmakers is tiny—perhaps 400 worldwide, each making 10-20 bows a year—they still need wood. Fanny Reyre Ménard, a luthier in France who is a leader in the French Musical Instrument Organization (La Chambre Syndicale de la Facture Instrumentale or CSFI), says, “The wood being used in Europe was legally imported prior to 2007. There was quite a lot of it at that time. One-third of the current makers in France had not started their careers in 2007; they got wood from auctions, colleagues, or people retiring.”

Past experience indicates that CITES delegates and enforcement entities can be sympathetic to the concerns of the music industry, particularly given their ongoing efforts in support of conservation and sustainability. Attention will now expand to educating musicians on ways they can be informed consumers and take direct action to support the future of pernambuco as a species. “CITES is intended to support sustainable trade, and we’ve built awareness over the years among decisionmakers who know how important it is to support international cultural activity alongside conservation,” Heather Noonan says, “We need to focus just as much attention on informing musicians of their role in supporting sustainability, starting with understanding the origins of the pernambuco they hold in their hands for each concert.”