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Background: the Lacey Act and the Fish & Wildlife Service raid on Gibson Guitars

Background on why the US Fish & Wildlife Service raided Gibson Guitars.

The following is a statement from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit that has worked closely on the Lacey Act, timber legality, and the illegal rosewood trade in Madagascar. Any views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of

Rosewood logging in Masoala National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

On 24 August 2011, agents of the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) raided Gibson Guitar facilities in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, seizing ebony and rosewood material, guitars and guitar parts as evidence of suspected violation(s) of the U.S. Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a long-standing anti-trafficking statute which prohibits commerce of illegally-sourced wildlife, plants and wood products from either the U.S. or other countries.

The government has not yet released a statement to the public on the case, but the affidavit filed to obtain the search warrants has been unsealed and is circulating (ref: “Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant #11-MJ-1067 A,B,C,D”). The facts referred to below are based on information contained in this affidavit. The Environmental Investigation Agency urges the FWS to issue further statements in order to help calm the confusion and concern generated among many companies and individuals in the musical instruments industry, other businesses and the media.

  The Lacey Act violation in question concerns Gibson’s import of pieces of rosewood and ebony that the government alleges to have been falsely declared both during export from India and during import to the U.S. The sawnwood in question had been exported from India under an incorrect tariff code (HS 9209), allegedly to avoid the Indian government’s prohibition on export of sawnwood products (HS 4407); and had been declared upon import as veneer (HS 4408). The affidavit states that this description “fraudulently presents as a shipment that would be legal to export from India, and, in turn, would not be a violation of the Lacey Act.” According to the affidavit, discrepancies among the paperwork accompanying the shipment suggest that the recipients knew they were purchasing sawnwood.

Contrary to claims by some pundits, rosewood in Madagascar is not used for wood-fuel or charcoal. It is widely recognized as a valuable hardwood and its harvest is widely known to be illegal.

Rosewood logs.

Precious hardwood logs are tied together with lianas and floated down rivers on rafts made from lighter species as trees. 5-6 lighter logs are needed to float each rosewood log, exacerbating the impact of rosewood extraction.

The affidavit describes eleven shipments of Indian ebony and rosewood imported in this manner over the past two years, despite what appears to be a publicly available Indian law prohibiting it. The facts in the affidavit appear to have been sufficient for a judge to approve search warrants on probable cause.

  EIA trusts that the current case will receive due process through the U.S. justice system. It is important to be clear, in general terms, that the Lacey Act is a U.S. law that reinforces and supports the laws of other countries concerning the sourcing, harvest and trade of wildlife, plants and wood products. It is common for countries to have bans and restrictions on export of logs or sawnwood; these laws are directly linked to forest management and protection efforts. They are often an important tool to help control export flows of illegally logged timber, and to ensure that the benefits of value-added processing contribute to development within these often poor countries.

  The Lacey Act’s intent is to support the rule of law through mutual respect, and to ensure that American businesses and consumers are not contributing to illegal activity or environmental harm in our own country or overseas. The law also helps ensure that U.S. producers are operating on a level playing field and not being undersold by illegal supply, which has been estimated to cost U.S. industry $1 billion annually. Like many new procedures, these measures may create confusion and even fear in the short term, as companies adapt their practices and mindset. However, media messages that promote this fear do businesses and people a disservice. There is no indication that the government has interest in professional or amateur musicians, whether or not their instruments contain Indian or Malagasy precious woods. The FWS has always stated its intent to investigate and shut down networks of illegal smuggling and trade, not individuals. Laws like Lacey are necessary security measures for the protection of the world’ forests, and this adjustment process is part of creating a “new normal” that will prevent the trees so important to musical instrument makers and other wood industries from disappearing. Ebony and rosewood species, for example, are overharvested and threatened throughout most of their global range. However, it is possible to source them legally. No music maker wants his or her instruments to be produced in a manner that is bad for forests, wildlife or people, or that may well preclude future generations from enjoying the same joy and quality.

Why was Gibson raided in 2009?

Investigation Into the Global Trade in Malagasy Precious Woods: Rosewood, Ebony and Pallisander

Madagascar’s national parks, full of wildlife and trees found nowhere else on earth, have been invaded over the past few years by illegal loggers seeking rosewood and ebony. A network of corrupt timber barons controls this trade in Madagascar; the wood is sold onwards to Europe, China and the United States. A researcher at the Missouri Botanical Gardens described Madagascar precious woods to the Wall Street Journal as “the equivalent of Africa’s blood diamonds.” Gibson was raided in 2009 in connection with its import of ebony from Madagascar, in violation of bans on this species’ export.

  The case is currently in civil proceedings and the Department of Justice has stated publicly that it expects to file criminal charges, although no charges have been filed yet. Information released in affidavits and motions over the past year include excerpts from internal emails indicating that Gibson decided to buy illegal wood knowing the risks involved.

  In the current civil case, in the District Court of Tennessee, Gibson asserts that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and no law has been violated. The government asserts that the seized Madagascar ebony wood is property illegal to possess, “both because it was unfinished wood and because Claimants’ source for ebony in Madagascar was not authorized to sell it.”

  The June 4th filing in the current civil case, states that:

The procedures of the U.S. judicial system give defendants and the government both ample opportunities to make their arguments and ensure all information is brought to light. New developments in this case are expected soon.

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