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Pernambuco and the CITES Appendix II Listing

Background behind the assignment of the CITES Appendix II listing

Most string players by now would have heard about the problems faced by bow makers due to their wood of choice attracting a CITES Appendix II listing. How could such a strange thing happen, and why?

To understand the reasons, we have to look at the wood that most fine bows are made from. It’s called Pernambuco, or Pau Brazil, botanical name Caesalpinia echinata. It is native only to the Mata Atlantica, the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, and it is an endangered species.

When the Portuguese first landed in Brazil, the Mata Atlantica was a vast forested region stretching some 4,000 km along the Atlantic coast from the Rio Grande do Norde down to the Rio Grande do Sul; a total area of 1.1 million square kilometres.

At that time, pernambuco had already been identified by the indigenous people for some of its special properties, amongst them, a brilliant red dye which could be extracted from the wood. The active substance in the wood is brazilin1, the family that pernambuco belongs to is brazilwood and, from these trees, Brazil took its name.

Interestingly, the local Indians also used pernambuco for making hunting weapons, amongst them bows – not the sort of bows we’re interested in, but they undoubtedly chose this wood for the same reasons – it’s a dense, hard, supple wood, ideal for bows of both types.

If you add to pernambuco’s attributes the fact that it’s beautiful, highly rot resistant, moderately easy to work with and can be finished to a fine polished surface, we start to get a picture of a tree that has too many desirable features for its own good!

The thorny trunk of a mature pernambuco tree

During the early period of colonisation and continuing right up until about the 1850s, pernambuco was harvested for the European dye making trades. It was used for construction and for the making of fine furniture and cabinetwork. Also around 1850, the Tourte family of bow makers in France started experimenting with pernambuco for violin bows.

Since these far off days of discovery, the Mata Atlantica has slowly evolved to become the most populated and developed region in Brazil (today, 120 million people live there – 63% of the Brazilian population, accounting for 70% of the Gross National Product).

This development has caused the progressive conversion of the Mata Atlantica to other uses, e.g. the growing of sugar cane and coffee, pine and eucalypt monocultures for pulp, cattle ranching, mining, urbanisation and associated infrastructure (roads, dams, etc.)2.

In addition to this massive destruction of the habitat, there has been significant harvesting of pernambuco and other hardwoods for domestic use since dense, rot-resistant woods are perfectly suited for home construction, ranch fencing, railroad sleepers and charcoal to fire the iron and steel industry3.

The current situation

Today, the Mata Atlantica is almost completely devastated, there remains only about 5% of preserved areas, found mainly in the south and southeast regions where a landscape of steep escarpments makes further clearance difficult and so provides some protection4.

Caesalpinia echinata
There have been concerns about the plight of pernambuco for at least the last 25 years and the International Conservation Union (IUCN), a highly regarded NGO, designated it as endangered in 19985. Shortly after this the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) started to take an interest. CITES is the international body which deliberates on the perceived threat to endangered species from trade and, where they deem necessary, have the power to enact internationally binding regulations on trade in that species.
In June 2007, the CITES committee deliberated on a proposal by Brazil to list pernambuco in Appendix II of the Convention. An Appendix II listing generally restricts international trade in the species in whole and in part, which includes raw material and items made from the material.

Prior to this meeting of the Parties, news raced around the world and, for the first time, musicians came to realise the full extent of the ramifications of restrictions on travelling with their bows and a wave of protest ensued.

Despite initial fears, however, the CITES appendices are not inflexible and in an ‘eleventh hour’ move Brazil amended their proposal to exclude bows being transported internationally by musicians.

Whether the protest was the reason for the eleventh hour amendment, we will never know, however, it was recognised that an unconditional Appendix II listing would ‘Place an unreasonable and unhelpful workload on musicians in particular’6. The exact sequence of proceedings is unclear, but it seems that the Unites States countered that any amendment must fall into line with existing customs codes and the outcome is that pernambuco has been listed ‘Appendix II’ with an exemption for ‘finished products’, e.g. violin bows.

It should be noted that CITES does have the option of further amending the current Appendix II listing or listing pernambuco in Appendix I if tighter controls are thought necessary.

The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative

The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI) was formed in 2000 when bow makers worldwide were alerted to the extreme situation. The IPCI membership is largely formed and funded by bow makers and related crafts.

Pernambuco leaves
Some conservation efforts had already been initiated in Brazil by at least one bow making company which had been planting out seedlings for years. There were also several government projects in place, covering a wide range of scientific research and practical initiatives such as offering a self-imposed export ban to try to curb illegal logging (one of the main areas of concern).

Pernambuco seed pod
The IPCI brought a new energy and funding from a global catchment and of course funding is the life-blood of any such cause. They worked with, and assisted in funding, several existing projects and continued to develop existing and revolutionary strategies.

Pernambuco seedlings

This was not a cynical, massive monoculture, simply intended to supply bow makers with wood. It was a properly devised strategy, based in science and observing the need for biodiversity, education and, not least, working with and empowering the local farmers and land holders by encouraging them to grow and protect a valuable cash crop. It was intended to plant out double the amount bow makers would use up, thereby contributing to the overall stabilisation of the species. The ‘Programma Pau Brazil’ project, for instance, will plant out half a million seedlings over the next five years, with 20% of that already completed. News of this project was well received at the CITES meeting, with some authorities believing that the IPCI approach could be a model for the protection of other species.

What the future will bring

Reinstatement of the Mata Atlantica to its former glory is simply not going to happen. However, conservation aimed at sustainable use of the resource is a very positive method of ensuring that everyone involved in the process has a vested interest in its success.

Pernambuco nursery
Whilst it’s accepted that urgent action is necessary the IPCI felt that an unconditional Appendix II listing might have been counter-productive as it might undermine their conservation and regeneration work. If the supporters of the IPCI were to see their craft and their livelihood vaporise before their eyes, if they lost heart, funding for these important conservation efforts could dry up. This outcome at least buys them some time and the IPCI remains committed to seeing the Programma Pau Brazil project through.

Will it be enough? Will our great modern bow makers survive, or will a centuries old tradition disappear? Only time will tell.

Whilst we must respect that every single pernambuco tree still standing in its natural habitat is vitally important, we can also take heart in the knowledge that conservation for sustainable use by bow makers is an achievable outcome if only conditions are favourable enough to allow it to run its course.

Fine cello bow

Finally, in this day and age with climate change, carbon cops and peak oil, etc. constantly in the news, where we are made to feel guilty in so many areas of our current lifestyles, should the string player feel guilty for playing with a pernambuco bow? The answer is very definitely NO! Bow making, whilst acknowledging a responsibility for the resource, is not responsible for the current plight of pernambuco, indeed it may yet prove to be its saviour, so join the IPCI, or make a donation to play a part in the conservation effort and delight in your bow. Enjoy it and, through music, allow us all to enjoy the many and varied qualities of this fabulous wood.

Important web sites for further information:

IPCI Canada – www.ipci-canada.org
IPCI USA – www.ipci-usa.org
IPCI Germany – www.ipci-deutschland.org
Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – CITES: www.cites.org
The IUCN Red list of Threatened Species – IUCN: www.iucnredlist.org


1. Eastman Strings (Rizzini & Mars, 1976)
2. IPCI − Comurnat
3. IPCI − Comurnat
4. Elizabeth Höfling, ‘Atlantic Forest’
5. Mark Hall, CITES Management Authority of Australia
6. Mark Hall, CITES Management Authority of Australia