Pernambuco: Help save the tree of harmony

Back in 2018, before the pandemic, I attended a meeting in Cremona of many representatives from professional violin and bow making associations around the world with the aim of forming the International Alliance of Violin and Bow Makers for Endangered Species. This was with the aim of discussing threats to our profession from the scarcity of natural resources, and ways to respond to them. These were not heads of industry looking to protect shareholder’s profits, but most of them were individual craftsmen and women who had grown up around the use of wood to make beautiful things that could be passed on to others to have use in making music.

Inaugural meeting to form the International Alliance of Violin and Bow Makers for Endangered Species, Cremona 2018.

If Pernambuco is the tree of harmony, it is not for music so much as its potential to restore an equilibrium between humankind and nature. For that reason we need your help.

There was no sense of hard-nosed capitalism, nor a sense that our business had a greater right to exploit the world of its resources than others, but a deep concern that ranged from the soil into which a sapling is planted to the experience of the audience in a concert hall. On the subject of Pernambuco, the wood from which bows are made, there were horrifying threats to its sustainable use, but not the ones we would have expected. Anyone interested in our musical heritage must read on. Though we tend to think of the use of tropical hardwoods negatively, anyone whose primary interest is for our natural environment will find that both concerns go hand-in-hand. 

There is an excellent petition on by the French musician Emilie Belaud. If you don’t have time to read this article, consider visiting the site and adding your name to influence the future of Pernambuco, this remarkable tree of harmony. Add your name on right here.

Add your name on right here.

What is the importance of Pernambuco to our musical culture? To the lay-audience, the relation of the bow to the violin, viola or cello is like the pen to paper. There is not a lot of point in having the best fountain-pen in the world if you are going to write on the recycled paper of a school exercise book. Similarly the most sumptuous writing paper with a refined clay coating to fill and smooth the gaps between the fibres is wasted if you only have a Biro. We all know that the best combination of pen and paper provides a sublime experience where the act writing is easier, and the mind can concentrate better on the literary substance that needs to be said. This is not simply about having a better tool for the job, but one that enables the musician to draw the best sound whilst playing an impossible number of notes with perfection on time and in tune and communicating with the other musicians with whom they play. 

Makers and musicians know that we have a legacy of using scarce resources, and in times past when our ancestors either cared less about the planet, or when resources were simply too abundant for them to worry about, they looked to the very best materials for the purpose regardless of the ecological cost. By the middle of the seventeenth century bow makers took to using exotic tropical hardwoods starting first with snakewood from Guiana, and by the 1770s or so, this was replaced as the wood of choice by Brazilian Pernambuco.

It is one of the few timbers so high in density that it sinks in water. The wood is capable of being bent under sufficiently low heat that it can be manipulated into shape in the hand of the craftsman to an infinitely precise degree, and can retain its bent shape permanently whilst simultaneously being incredibly flexible and working under tension. It has a modulus of acoustic properties, strength and flexibility that works like no other timber. A stick selected with particularly good properties can be precisely shaped in order to refine its responsiveness so that its internal resonances are sympathetic to the speed that strings of a violin vibrate.

This mixture between the natural properties of the wood and the skill of the bow maker can produce the effortless response that a musician needs to enable them to perform the most challenging music, but even an average bow made of these materials can have more of that magic than one made from any of the proposed alternatives. Hence it is something of a wonder-material that used and loved by hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world. Some people describe them as magic wands. We can’t argue with that. Some musicians become completely inseparable from a favourite bow. Over the centuries other woods and synthetic materials have been used as substitutes. They do well, but nothing is as satisfactory as Pernambuco. The legacy of really great bows made over more than 250 years, and the continual preference expressed for them by musicians substantiates that nothing has the potential to create a really great bow the way that this miracle wood does. 

Moreover, whilst Pernambuco has been the wood of choice for generations. Musicians have trained to embrace the versatility that it gives. In turn, composers have written music that fully explores the musical possibilities offered to them by the techniques that the best musicians can develop. The most-loved music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, who wrote when the modern bow was in its infancy, up to music of the present day depends on what the musician is capable of, and in turn the musician depends on his tools. Our most cherished music would not be the same, and the virtuosity of great musicians that inspires the world would never have happened the way it did without this strange species of wood. Most importantly of all you don’t have to be a fan of classical music to be moved by the contribution that Pernambuco provides to our civilisation: The same techniques and training find their way into the sound-world of almost every part of our cultural map. Film directors and even computer game makers have  discovered that the capabilities of the orchestra provides an unrivalled soundscape, and the possibilities provided by Pernambuco bows running over violins and cellos, exists in many corners of music, even in the textures and depth that turns a great pop song into a something immortal: Where would Eleanor Rigby of the Beatles be without a stick of Pernambuco bouncing over the strings of a cello? A veteran of the London Symphony Orchestra through the 1970s and 80s took pleasure in pointing out to me that Star Wars would lack much of its appeal without its musical score and the musicians that performed its soundtrack. It’s true. Pernambuco speaks to us all. 

For all of these arguments, do our cultural values justify the threat of pushing a species to extinction? Simply put, the harvesting of pernambuco for bow making and an international bow trade is well regulated. Nothing is completely without threat, but the positive benefits of sustainable growth outweigh any risks that contribute to the dwindling of the species in its natural environment. Pernambuco grows along the Atlantic Coast of Brazil, the area of the country with the highest population density and the biggest pressure to transform the land to achieve its highest economic yield. Threats to the species come from indiscriminate land clearance for urban development, cattle grazing, eucalyptus plantations, and sugar cane production. Overall it is estimated that the 90% of the land where Pernambuco grows has been cleared. Therefore concern for extinction does not come from selective forestry for a tiny niche industry of bow making, but from the requirements of big business and the government policy that supports it. The actions of bow makers and the musical community are focussed on sustaining the remaining 10%, preserving the species and providing the potential for regrowth.

The last time Pernambuco became a political football was in the late 1990s, leading to a group of bowmakers in sixty countries forming the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI). At the time, activists were shining a light on the Mahogany industry that was extracting the equivalent of $1million of timber per day from virgin rainforest. Pernambuco was such a specialist wood with no value to the mahogany industry, that it served as a sacrificial lamb. CITES, the UNESCO organisation that regulates endangered species require extensive surveys to determine the extent of loss of any given species before adding it to Appendix I of the most endangered species, but egregiously the Brazilian government never did a survey, stating their case largely on the high cost of finished products made in Pernambuco  relative to its raw material costs and promoting an argument that it’s economic potential was the driving force behind alleged over-utilisation of the scarce resource. When the determination was made to have Pernambuco listed under Appendix I, representatives of IPCI were given just four minutes to state their case before the vote. Afterwards a single hand was raised to make an objection. The man who stated that this was ‘a really serious issue and that it urgently needed to be approved’ that swayed the room was a specialist in Brazilian tropical hardwood on account of being a spokesman for an organisation that represented the 40 biggest tropical hardwood dealers, at a time that the industry was under heavy scrutiny. By being seen to be ‘ethical’ on Pernambuco, it gave the impression that the government and timber industry was overall more ‘ethical’.

For the second time in a generation, Pernambuco has been thrown under the bus of expediency as a political gesture. The preservation of Pernambuco is not only vital for our musical culture, but by fighting the specious claims of Bolsonaro’s Government, our fight is shining a light on the cynical political games of a corrupt administration that is intent on causing the maximum destruction of the rain forests for short term commercial gain. By showing willing to UNESCO and identifying species of particular risk, the government shows action and commitment. Meanwhile an average of 10,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed per day. In 2021 4.8 million acres of land were lost to indiscriminate deforestation. In other words an area the size of the city of New York every day, an area the size of Italy per year. Paradoxically, the ban will put Pernambuco conservation initiatives out of business at a time that the remaining 10% of suitable land for its growth will face continued threats of indiscriminate destruction that will be unchecked by this CITES legislation.

Two decades later, why has this issue raised its head again? According to the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the value of Brazilian exports of wood-based products (excluding pulp and paper) increased by a staggering 36% year over year in September 2021. The value up from US$283.2million to US$385.8million. With this unprecedented market growth, the  government policies under Jair Bolsanaro to promote the exploitation of Brazil’s natural resources, scrutiny and international pressure to protect the rainforest is the hottest it has ever been. Moreover, analysts recognise that illicit logging makes up as much as 20% of forest clearance for timber. Some estimates put the total of timber trafficking across borders of the Amazonian basin at up to 90% with much illicit timber passing through Brazil and Peru on its way to the international markets. Hence the enormous global pressure for Brazil to be seen engaging in best practice to preserve the Amazon rainforests.

Yet again, the political expedience of throwing the violin-bow trade under the bus serves to clog up CITES time. It creates a smokescreen that appears to show willing on behalf of the Brazilian government. At the same time, areas of rainforest the size of New York City are cleared every day. The stark truth is that supporting efforts to prohibit Pernambuco does more to encourage the destruction of the rainforest than doing nothing. This veneer of responsibility diverts attention from Bolsonaro’s priorities to exchange timber for foreign cash with devastating effects on the rainforest and its ecosystem of plants and wildlife. 

Meanwhile the fate of the rainforest is less about the multi-billion dollar hardwood industry, much of which is turning at a leviathan pace towards sustainable models, but the majority of indiscriminate clearance comes from urbanisation, sugar cane, cattle farming, and eucalyptus plantations for the paper industry. Nevertheless in the eyes of many environmental activists, scarce wood products provide a seductive vehicle for protest, even if they can be managed in sustainable ways that promote conservation of the remaining forest canopy. Sustainable forestry for the timber industry can’t replace virgin rainforest, but it can restore areas that have already suffered clearance from competing commercial priorities, and put them to better use. 

In reality, the fate of Pernambuco is in good hands. In the 1980s sustainable plantations for Pernambuco began, simply because it was becoming harder to extract wood from the rainforest as demand increased. As the impending crisis of the late 1990s evolved, these plantations were replicated by other Brazilian bow manufacturers, and developed hand-in-hand with the development of a home-grown industry of making bows at source for the global market, meaning that more of the revenue from bow making than just the raw material costs comes into Brazil, and helps to sustain the communities that provide stewardship to these plantations.

One of the heart-warming stories to emerge out of recent years was a chance encounter between IPCI and representatives of CEPLAC, a federal institution working to improve agricultural and rural development in the cacao regions of Brazil, which resulted in a formal contract in 2003. Cacao, the ingredient for chocolate, thrives off small scale labour-intensive farming, with the result that it is a perfect crop for sustaining village communities, but the plant naturally grows in the shade of the forest floor. Attempts to replant deforested areas have hitherto required polythene tunnels and other artificial means to cover it, which create their own problems. The Pernambuco tree with its dense leaves, and it’s umbrella-like cover make it the ideal counterpart to Cacao in returning these plantations to a state that is more sensitive to the eco-system and promote regrowth of the forest floor. It’s a win-win situation, and as it takes about 10-15 years for a Pernambuco tree to reach enough maturity to be harvested for bow wood although 30 years is preferable and it provides the perfect ecological balance and an extra income that is contractually directed to promote environmental education and keep these communities out of poverty. There are 93,000 Brazilian producers yield over 200,000 metric tonnes of cacao per year. 63% of produce is from the Bahia region where the environment naturally favours Pernambuco growth, and most of this industry has the potential to convert to Pernambuco to provide the ideal shaded environment. This means that the more we support Brazilian bow makers, the greater the opportunity for Brazilian cacao production to create chocolate that is more than simply organic, but profoundly in harmony with nature.

Pernambuco has never been endangered except by indiscriminate clearances, and most of what is felled is destroyed. It grows so extensively in Brazil that under it’s other moniker, Pau-Brasil, it is the country’s national tree: Something that has been twisted into the political discourse from an expression of bountiful existence into giving the appearance of rarity. It and has been used as lumber for centuries, as ballast in ships and as sleepers on railway lines, but it produces a beautiful purple dye, so-valued in the Renaissance that the country was named for it, and sought after up through the nineteenth century before more stable synthetic alternatives replaced it. It works magically for bows. However, it is unattractive to the timber industry because it is too hard and too heavy by comparison to mahogany species to be a commercial wood. It is simply the scarcity of uses that it offers combined with the tragedy of de-forestation that makes it seem like a rare timber and makes it a target for cynical political opportunism. Moreover it has the potential as a responsibly harvested wood to offer communities a way of life in better connected with the environment that the world is trying to protect. Pernambuco growers need to have the support of a global community that can support their ethical sustainable aims, and that is where you come in. If Pernambuco is the tree of harmony, it is not for music so much as its potential to restore an equilibrium between humankind and nature. For that reason we need your help.

If Pernambuco is the tree of harmony, it is not for music so much as its potential to restore an equilibrium between humankind and nature. For that reason we need your help.

The alternative is stark. If CITES Appendix I listing is given to Pernambuco in November 2022, all of this will be for nothing, and the effects of draconian legislation will be far-reaching. From an end to the plantations and their contribution to ecological regrowth all the way through to the ability to purchase and travel with pernambuco bows regardless of how old they are. We need your help to support initiatives that are ahead of the curve and provide a beacon of good practice for sustainable husbandry of the environment in Brazil, and we need further support to ensure that they remain on track.

You can sign Emilie Belaud’s excellent petition ahead of the CITES meeting in November 2022. Add your name on here. 

An abridged version of this blog was published by The Strad Magazine, 27 October 2022 “Pernambuco: The worst-case scenario“.

To provide continuing support for a concerned and sustainable approach to music and materials, you can donate to the International Alliance of Violin and Bow Makers for Endangered Species by following the link


    1. Benjamin Hebbert

      Please feel free to share as much as you like. It’s really important that we all help to educate musicians and gather as wide support as possible. Whatever our use about bows and music, our initiatives really are ahead of the c urge of responsible sustainable practice in Brazil.


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