Government Owned Guitars: Is Your Instrument Destroying the Rainforest?

When it comes to being environmentally conscious, musicians tend to be a group that leads the pack. Artists often use their large and captive audiences to spread the word of “going green” and how they care for the environment. Artists the likes of Radiohead and Dave Matthews and The Roots have used their fame, worldwide tours, and lyrics to spread the word about protecting our earth and doing what we can to clean up our planet. However, there is one conundrum many of these musicians face when it comes to their mission to save the planet: their guitars.

Any guitar player will tell you, the type of wood that goes in to making high end guitars has a huge effect on the tone and playability of the instrument. Guitar makers like C.F. Martin & Co., Gibson, Fender, and Taylor all seek out rare hardwoods to make some of the worlds finest instruments that sell for multiple thousands of dollars. These instruments boast some of the rarest mahoganies, ebonies, and spruces from around the globe, some of which can sell for almost $200 per square foot. Even though these historic instrument makers have been using these woods for years, the companies have not gone without scrutiny by environmentalists and government agencies.

In August of 2011, Gibson guitars headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee was raided by armed members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reason for the raid? Nearly one million dollars worth of rare Indian ebony that was allegedly brought into the country illegally. This was the second raid in two years on the Gibson factory for possession of rare woods thought to be contraband. Gibson quickly sent out a press release stating that the company was in full compliance with the law. The statement claims that the wood seized was purchased from a certified Forest Stewardship Council supplier, that the company was not hiding the fact that they were in possession of the wood, and that Gibson will aggressively fight to prove their innocence.

The Gibson factory being raided is one of many stories of instrument manufacturers running in to similar situations. The government has used the U.S. Lacey Act as their primary basis for fighting these companies. The Lacey Act prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken or sold. This act was modified to include rare woods in 2008. Henry E. Juszkiewicz, chief of operations at Gibson, included in his press release that the Lacey Act “does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country.

The U.S. Lacey Act is only applicable when a foreign law has been violated.” Juszkiewicz is right. He argues that the wood was completely legal because it was already finished, putting it in compliance with Indian law as well as the Lacey Act.

Instances like this provide a basis for interesting discussion on both political and environmental grounds. It is easy for an environmentally minded person to look at a situation like this and see that Gibson is using rare woods from remote parts of the world which could negatively impact the environment and automatically pin them as the “bad guys”. But, there are some details to this story not often seen in the press that may change people’s reactions.

While it cannot be denied that guitar makers do use rare woods, some of which are

considered endangered, it is important to realize how big their impact really is. Take Sitka spruce as an example. This is one of the most commonly found woods used by guitar makers across the planet. This wood is harvested mainly in Alaska and shipped all over the world. To fulfill an entire years worth of guitars to be sold, only about 150 Sitkas would need to be harvested. This makes up a tiny fraction of the total number of these trees that are cut and shipped every year. In fact, a large majority of Sitkas go to Japan to build homes. An overwhelming majority of the deforestation in the world is caused by logging companies that clear cut forests to create timber for building or use as fuel sources. These trees are cut down in quantities that far surpass the amount of wood guitar companies use and the impact of this clear cutting is massive and devastating.      

In the grand scheme of things, the impact of the guitar industry on the cutting and selling of

rare woods is small, if not negligible, in comparison to other industries. Gibson still has yet to face any charges of criminal activity from either of the raids over the past 3 years and at this point, is innocent of any illegal activity. But, even if Gibson were guilty of these accusations, one has to wonder why the government would spend their time seeking out small companies with minimal amounts of these imports while illegal logging is taking place all over and in much greater quantities. Gibson is even a part of SmartWood, a program set up by the Rain Forest Alliance that audits the illegal poaching of endangered wood species. They have also worked with Greepeace to encourage logging companies to stay away from endangered forests. Gibson, along with numerous other high end guitar manufacturers, care about their impact and manage to keep their footprint as small as they can. This makes one wonder, is the guitar industry simply an easy target because of their publicised use of these rare woods?

It is vital that all industries that take advantage of natural resources be regulated and operate within the law. If Gibson were indeed guilty of obtaining wood illegally, they should be penalized and have to pay the consequences for breaking the law. But, since there is still no substantial evidence that this is the case, why has so much time and energy been put in to this situation by the Fish and Wildlife Service when there are logging companies illegally clear cutting forests,  endangered species are being poached out of existence, and oil companies continue illegal operations with little to no regulation or accountability?

These questions obviously cannot be answered by anyone except those that enforce the law. But, it does put a certain weight on the shoulders of those who fight for environmental

issues and want to see change in the way our planet is treated. In the news, we often see protests against oil companies or corporations that are having a negative impact on the environment. One has to wonder if the government should be the ones being protested. Gibson is not the only example of a lack of focus by government run environmental agencies. The EPA has been brought to court multiple times for their lack of enforced regulation and won their cases with little to no consequences. Oil companies are constantly involved in law suits in which they are cleared of charges because they can simply pay off the fines with little impact to their business. Environmental issues have to start at the top with the root of the problem and work their way down. If major deforestation and pollution are not tackled before the companies like Gibson are attacked for their “injustices”, we may reach a point where there is no wood left to build guitars, much less raid them.

photo credit: http://biggovernment.com/awrhawkins/2011/08/28/doj-raids-gibson-guitars-over-alleged-environmental-infractions-but-mums-still-the-word-on-fast-and-furious/

 

The Impact of Your Daily Cup O’ Joe

Oil consumption is by far the most discussed environmental issue in the United States. We are saturated with information about how it impacts our environment, controversy about where it comes from, and the often harmful practices that are used to harvest it. There is just cause for this discussion though; oil is, after all, the worlds most traded commodity. However, we often ignore the worlds second largest commodity and important human fuel source: coffee.

The International Coffee Organization (ICO) works as the main intergovernmental organization for coffee who not only works to strengthen the worlds coffee markets, but also keeps track of the amount of coffee bought and sold across the world. In 2010, the ICO recorded that the United States purchased 21,340,853 60 kilo bags of green (unroasted) coffee. That’s 2,816,992,596 pounds of coffee brought into the United States in one year. Starbucks bought 269 million pounds of that coffee. Coffee is a truly massive industry that grows even lager year by year. So, how does it impact the environment?

The potential impact that coffee has on the environment begins at the source. Coffee provides a livelihood for literally millions of people across the globe from tiny community farms producing less than 1,000 pounds of coffee per year, to huge “factory farm” style plantations that produce millions of pounds of beans. The impact of these small farms is much smaller than that of the larger ones for other reasons than just size. It is much easier and more cost effective for a small farm to use organic practices, causing less of an impact on their environment due to fertilizers and pesticides as well as increasing the return to the farmer. Larger farms that produce huge quantities of coffee almost always employ the use of chemicals to stop various bugs and diseases from invading their crops. Because these chemicals are usually under-regulated, the chemicals often negatively impact the surrounding communities. Pesticides and fertilizers can contaminate ground water and, with high enough concentration, can cause birth defects, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.

Deforestation is also an area of concern in the coffee industry. Seven of the ten countries with the highest rates of deforestation are in coffee producing countries in the Caribbean and South America. Farms looking to produce massive quantities of coffee find it easier to simply clear out the forest and plant coffee shrubs in rows where they can be easily maintained. Small farms often either have coffee already growing from past generations and are carrying on the family business, or they plant trees among the already present vegetation of the area. “Shade-grown” coffee is often use as a descriptor on coffee bags. This means that there is a canopy of trees around where the coffee is harvested that maintain the biodiversity of an area, as well as protecting the hundreds of birds and other species that call them home. Coffee is also a lover of shade and naturally occurring varieties will thrive and produce a higher quality fruit with proper shade.    

Coffee has a very specific growing region. While you could hypothetically grow it just about anywhere, it thrives between the tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) and at high altitudes. The highest coffee producing countries are currently Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. The countries with the highest number of coffee imports are the United States, Germany, and Japan. This is where the environmental impact of coffee continues: there is a lot of space between these producers and consumers.

Most often, coffee is shipped in huge shipping containers that carry about 37,500 pounds of coffee each. These containers can be “mixed” meaning they contain coffee from multiple farms (a typical purchase of large, mass market roasters) or only one specific farm or region (more characteristic of specialty coffee roasters). The fact of the matter is it takes a lot of fuel to get that kind of weight across the ocean and numerous steps must be taken to get the coffee in to your cup every morning.

When a mass market roaster buys a lot of coffee, it passes through many hands before it actually reaches the consumer. Every country’s government has different stipulations when it comes to selling coffee, but the chain follows a pretty standard operation. In a situation where a farm is producing large amounts of coffee, the coffee cherries are picked, sometimes by machines, and brought to a larger sorting facility where the fruit is processed and dried. After reaching a state suitable for shipping, the coffee is placed in burlap sacks and brought either to auction or a shipping facility, depending on the country it is in. The coffee is purchased from farmers by exporters, who ship the coffee to where ever it will be consumed. Some extremely large farms export their own coffee or have previous arrangements with transnational coffee distributing or processing companies. The coffee is then purchased again by importers. The importers then sell the coffee again for a third time to roasters who will prepare the green beans for sale. After roasting and packaging the beans, roasters will either sell directly to customers or sell to retail shops who will then sell the coffee again to their customers. So, when you buy a bag of coffee from the grocery store, there is a good chance that you may be the fifth or sixth person to actually purchase those coffee beans. Not only does this process require a lot of steps and a lot of fuel, it leads to lower prices being paid to farmers and, in turn, lower quality coffee.       

The final impact comes from brewing coffee. Consider what goes into buying one cup of regular coffee from a coffee shop. The coffee must first be ground and brewed. If the cup is coming from a big batch of coffee, there are usually time limits for freshness that result in old coffee being thrown out, sometimes by the gallon. If the cup is brewed to order, heating up excess water to brew the coffee can nearly double the amount of energy being used. The coffee is then put in to a plastic-lined paper cup with a plastic lid and a cardboard sleeve. The coffee grounds that have been used are usually just thrown away, along with the paper filter.

So, how do we become better coffee consumers?

The first step is to ask questions. Any coffee shop that says they sell “sustainable” coffee should be able to answer a few basic questions: Where does this coffee come from? (not just the country, but at minimum the region and perhaps the specific farm). How was it produced? (organically, shade-grown, type of process, etc.) How much are the farmers paid? (Any coffee company worth their salt should be transparent about how their farmers are paid) Not only will these questions help you better understand what you are consuming, you will also find much higher quality coffee.

While a high percentage of mass market coffee is not sustainably produced, there are numerous companies that do things right and consider their impact in everything they do. Counter Culture Coffee is a great model of what a sustainable coffee company should look like. Their focus is on producing some of the highest quality coffee in the world while maintaining strong relationships with farmers, paying above Fair Trade prices to farmers, keeping 100% transparency with their customers, and leaving a tiny carbon footprint throughout it all. They have established their own direct trade certification, cut out all middle men when shipping, and are even on their way to carbon neutrality. Not to mention, all of their coffees are pesticide free, if not certified organic, are grown in naturally shaded environments and are characteristic of some of the most prized coffees in the world.

After buying coffee from a reputable company that has gone through the proper steps to ensure an environmentally friendly and high quality product, try brewing your coffee by the cup instead of using that old inefficient brewer you have had for 20 years. Using a product like a french press or manual drip brewer (see, Chemex, BonMac, or Beehouse) will not only make a delicious cup of coffee, it will allow you to control all variables behind brewing the coffee and will save energy. Only heat the amount of water you need. Only grind the amount of coffee you will actually use. Drink from a reusable mug. Compost your coffee grounds. All these steps will lead to a smaller footprint and far less waste from your morning coffee.

Companies like Counter Culture should be the first stop for the environmentally conscious coffee consumer. So often, people care about buying local produce and meats, join CSAs, and are conscious about buying organic, but still buy coffee without considering what goes in to it. Coffee is a massive part of world commerce and should be treated with the same care and consideration that people put into other food and drink. If we all were to consider where our coffee was coming from and who was producing it, not only would the worlds coffee farmers be much better off, but the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the coffee industry would be greatly decreased.

Photo Credit: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/deforestation_update5.php

Controversial Intensive Management of Alaska’s Bear Population

In 2008, when Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate, numerous stories from her past were revealed, many of them involving environmental issues. One of the most memorable was her sponsoring of a program that allowed the hunting of Grey Wolves, an animal that has been on and off the endangered species list for years. The most shocking part of the story is that she not only encouraged the killing of these animals, but declared it legal to shoot them from helicopters. In this process, hunters follow the wolves from the air until they can not run any more and then take them down with shotguns. A similar story has made its way back in to the news, although this time, it concerns Alaska’s bears.

On January 17th, the Alaska Board of Game proposed to open the doors for hunters to shoot bears, including grizzlies, from helicopters. The proposed policies also included measures that would allow for widespread snaring of bears. These new “intensive management” strategies will be voted on in March, but will certainly raise debates between now and then.

These proposed policies have stirred up confusion among not only environmentalists and conservationists, but hunters and politicians as well. Terry Holliday, president of the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International  (a group certainly not opposed to hunting) says that he disagrees with the proposed changes. Holliday told the Bend Bulletin there are better ways to control the bear population and that “It’s not humane. You shoot something, you kill it. If it’s properly done, it’s bang, and it’s over, with the animal not suffering. But when you go out and you start snaring animals and whoever’s doing it, say, the weather’s bad and you can’t get back for several days, here’s a bear sitting there in a snare with a bucket on its foot.”

The potential pain that this new provision could put these animals through is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many unanswered questions still floating around about this proposal, mostly because the true answers are not what people want to hear (or what advocates want to admit). In a list put out by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the reasons against the trapping and shooting of bears is clearly outlined by Wade Willis, former Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife and former biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One of the main arguments that Willis makes is that there are not nearly enough regulations being put on this proposed hunting. There is currently no limit to how many bears can be killed, who can trap and kill them, nor has there been any designated area the trappings can take place. Not to mention the danger that helicopters can cause not only to those riding in them in inclimate weather, but also to the environment. The worry is that illegal “cutting in” of forests will take place to accommodate the helicopters and planes to get in to these remote areas where the bears live.

The hunting being proposed is to “manage” the numbers of bears around Alaska that are often considered predatory and dangerous. The issue with this is that one specific type of bear cannot be targeted by snares, or identified properly from the air, and some of Alaska’s bear species are nearing endangerment or already endangered. The Grizzly, which is part of the Brown Bear family, while rebounded in population in the past few years, only has come back in numbers by being placed on the endangered species list. The Endangered Species Act is what saved this animal and if it were not for that, it is quite possible the Grizzly would be nearing extinction today due to illegal poaching. A large amount of funding is provided for the protection of Black Bears, causing them to be one of the most stable bear species. However, if hunting without regulation were to be allowed, it is no telling what may happen to either of these creatures numbers.

The list goes on of why this hunting, at it’s core, is simply not a rational decision for the Alaskan environment. Some of the area the proposed hunting would take place is near a bear sanctuary where people can come to observe the bears and appreciate their beauty. Rod Arno, an advocate for the Alaskan Outdoor Council, responds to this potential sanctuary invasion by saying “Bears are a renewable resource. Humans can’t take more than 5 percent of the bears, so there are always more bears around that you can look at.” Even if this is true, there is nothing in place enforcing “only 5%” being killed which could lead to a serious decline in the species.

So, what is being done to stop this reckless killing? An organization called Grizzly Bay is fighting to defend the Grizzly Bears in Katmai National Park. They provide information of who to contact and tell to stop the killing of these bears (why not give Governor Sean Parnell a call at 907-465-3500 or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 907-465-4100). Former Alaska governor Teddy Knowles is also speaking out against these proposed changes and testified before the Alaska Board of Game as to why it is wrong. Numerous other environmental advocates are protesting this hunting and one can assuredly expect to hear more about this in the coming months.

When all is said and done, this hunting simply does not have just cause and has no merit. “Controlling” a species to preserve others never truly works (as seen in Elk and Moose in Alaska’s history) and will most likely be looked back on as a mistake ten years from now. One of our nations greatest conservationists, Theodore Roosevelt, encouraged hunters to enjoy nature, but always touted the “fair chase”, not bloodsport. While I cannot speak on his behalf, I am confident Teddy would not consider helicopters a part of a true sportsman’s fair chase. Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system was based on the ideas that wildlife is managed as a public trust using scientific principles for the common good. The careless snaring and hunting of bears throws these proven concepts out the window and leads down a dangerous path of destruction.

Photo credit: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/shoshone/home/?cid=stelprdb5187633

The Constant Battle for the Bluefin

Just a few weeks ago on January 5th, the most expensive Bluefin Tuna on record was sold at Tokyo’s Tsujiki fish market for an astonishing $736,000, about $1,238 per pound. Japanese restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura, who will be serving the fish in his establishments around Tokyo, purchased the 593-pound giant and felt it was a positive purchase for Japanese morale. While some have recognized this purchase as an encouraging sign for a nation that has been through so much over the past year, the allure of high prices for Bluefin is quite alarming to those concerned with the preservation of this species.

Bluefin Tuna is the most popular fish in the world. It is prized in sushi restaurants for its fatty flesh and also appeals to the health conscious for its high amounts of vitamins A, B6 and B12. With its growing popularity, the Bluefin has become not only one of the most popular fish to eat, but also one of the most over-fished species on the planet. Since the 1960’s, populations of spawning (620 lbs and greater) Bluefin have been steadily decreasing to the point where it is believed that numbers have been diminished to only 3% of its former population- that’s a 97% drop. Over-fishing has even lead to the extinction of the South Atlantic Bluefin around South Africa.

 

With these fish fetching such high prices at market, there certainly is reason for concern. If the fish is continually promoted as a product for fishermen that will make them large sums of money, the amount of fishing will only increase as the population declines. Allen To, a marine conservation officer at the World Wildlife Fund told the South China Morning Post, “We don’t agree with the use of an over-fished and endangered species as a promotional gimmick.” Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, agrees.        

You may know Paul from his successful efforts to stop whaling around Antarctica and the Discovery Channel show Whale Wars that documented some of his expeditions. Captain Watson redirected his flagship vessel, the Steve Irwin, to the Mediterranean last year where he successfully prevented the illegal catching of thousands of Bluefin Tuna. While the Sea Shepherds have had some success already in preventing over-fishing, they are still fighting hard to save the Bluefin with their campaign, Operation Blue Rage.

 

A great amount of attention has always been put on the Bluefin for its prized meat and known state of decline. However, it seems the media attention is not enough for government agencies to help. In March of 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flaura (CITES) rejected a proposed trade ban on Bluefin even though it is a known endangered species. The Bluefin fishing quotas are also set extremely high for a species in decline. The yearly-allotted amount of caught Bluefin is currently set at 13,500 tons by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Even though this high number has been set, it is not enforced and it is estimated that true number caught is closer to 60,000 tons. With illegal fishing like this, the likelihood of the Bluefin surviving another 10 years is slim.

 

It is easy to ignore a fish because we do not often consider them when discussing endangered species. We would never consider poaching tigers or polar bears because we know their numbers are slim and we want to preserve species that are considered majestic creatures. The Bluefin Tuna is one of the most amazing and important creatures in the ocean and to ignore it could be detrimental. To preserve the health of our oceans and the future of this species, over-fishing of the Bluefin must stop and the promotion of high prices for the fish has to end. Next time you go out for sushi, consider that your piece of sashimi may be having a greater effect on our oceans than we could have ever imagined.

For more information on what the Sea Shepherds are doing to help save the Bluefin Tuna or to donate, visit seashepherd.org.  

Photo credit: noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2008/images/bluefishtuna.jpg