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African blackwood - a sound choice for the woodwind musician

Uncontrolled and illegal felling is contributing to deforestation in south east Tanzania (Mpingo Conservation Project)
Uncontrolled and illegal felling is contributing to deforestation in south east Tanzania
Mpingo Conservation Project

Woodwind musicians may love their instruments dearly, but the action of blowing into clarinets, oboes or bagpipes subjects them to potentially damaging moisture. The wood used, therefore, needs not only to be strong, but to have a high oil-content, which can resist the degrading effects of saliva. African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), from the miombo forests of Eastern and Southern Africa, is the perfect choice, and as such comes at a high price: around US$16,000 per cubic metre for sawn wood. Global trade in blackwood currently stands at 150-200m3 per year, divided between the only two nations with significant stocks, Tanzania and Mozambique.

Kilwa district, in south east Tanzania, is a stronghold of African blackwood, known locally as mpingo. However, it was estimated that in 2004-5, 96 per cent of timber extracted from this region was illegally felled, in part due to under-resourced policing. In 2009, however, two communities in Kilwa district will be the first to sell mpingo which has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the first FSC certificate for community-managed forests in Africa. As a result, from 2011, once the wood has been dried and crafted, woodwind musicians will be able to buy blackwood instruments labelled with the FSC 'tick-mark', guaranteeing sustainable harvesting and a fair price paid to the forest managers.

Cutting quota

Gaining FSC certification for timber is complex; calculating a sustainable felling quota is one important aspect. In this case, members of two villages - Kikole and Kisangi - were trained to carry out a forest inventory, and by extrapolating from tree counts on transect walks, could estimate the quantities of commercially useful timber in their forest reserve. Training was provided by a local NGO, the Mpingo Conservation Project (MCP)*, which has also devised a table for calculating the correct felling quota. The forest reserves contain many commercial tree species, but mpingo has become a flagship for the certification process, since a market for the FSC-registered wood has already been identified and links developed with British instrument makers. Before the project began its work, villagers typically received just 8 US cents per mpingo log; following certification the price will be upwards of US$19.

Mpingo wood is very strong, but even a small fault will cause the wood to crack in the instrument making process (Mpingo Conservation Project)
Mpingo wood is very strong, but even a small fault will cause the wood to crack in the instrument making process
Mpingo Conservation Project

So far, around 500ha of the Kikole reserve is under FSC-certified stewardship, from which an estimated US$1,000 will be earned from felling 40 trees in June or July 2009. If the operation is successful, the MCP aims to scale up in several directions. For Kikole, increasing the FSC-certified area to cover as much as 7,000 hectares would be relatively straightforward. The income raised, which could eventually exceed US$100,000 per year, could be used for community projects or be paid direct to individuals, at the discretion of the Village Council. Kikole has decided to use its first earnings to improve the road to the village. Further plans for the project include: harvesting timber from other tree species; increasing the amount of money paid for each mpingo log; and training local sawmills to extract useful timber from smaller pieces of mpingo.

Kikole and Kisangi have been registered under a group certificate, to which other villages can be added, and two more communities are expected to join by the end of 2009. Further expansion will depend on donor support, costing approximately US$30,000 per community. Looking to the future, the complexities of certification mean that MCP involvement will be ongoing. However, in time this will become self-financing, based on a share of revenue from timber sales, rather than dependent on the funding decisions of donors.

Linking conservation and development

Producing suitable pieces of wood for instruments requires skillful work by the saw mill (Mpingo Conservation Project)
Producing suitable pieces of wood for instruments requires skillful work by the saw mill
Mpingo Conservation Project

One of the most exciting things about the project for Steve Ball, MCP's international coordinator, is the close link between conservation and development. Miombo woodlands, much threatened in Africa by deforestation, are a rich ecosystem, both for plants and animals: the forests in Kilwa, for example, are criss-crossed with trails of African wild dogs, a critically endangered species which needs extensive hunting grounds to survive. The advantage of the FSC certification, says Ball, is that it creates a system which rewards those who follow the regulations. If illegal logging is detected, equal quantities of wood can be deducted from a village's annual quota. Communities which repeatedly break the rules will be excluded from the certificate, losing the premium sale price paid to members.

Selling certified mpingo also enables poor communities to benefit from the huge escalation in value between forest and music shop. A piece of sawn mpingo suitable for making one oboe costs around US$40; the finished instrument may cost US$3,000. "Doubling the price paid for the wood has a negligible effect on the final price of the instrument and is a cost which musicians may be ready to pay, to have an instrument made from ethically sourced timber," says Ball. But, for the communities that manage the trees, the increased earnings represent a vital step towards financial security and a better life.

*MCP is supported by Environment Africa Trust and Fauna and Flora International

Date published: July 2009


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