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Wake Up Call: Musicians of Maroon 5 & Guster Discover the Good & Bad of Wood Sourcing Options

Wake up call: In the forests of Guatemala, members of Maroon 5 and Guster discover the good and the bad of wood sourcing options

To read this blog post in Spanish, please click here.

Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve played host to world-renowned rockstars last December. James Valentine and Jesse Carmichael of Maroon 5 and Adam Gardner of Guster found themselves in the lush rainforests of Northern Guatemala to learn about illegal logging and sustainable community forestry. With many instruments coming from precious and rare tonewoods found in forests threatened by illegal logging, musicians such as James, Jesse, and Adam are using their voices to underscore the connection between their music and forests and encourage sustainable forest practices.

The dense forests of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala are broken only by the glimpse of scattered ancient Mayan temples, and as James, Jesse, and Adam learned, these ruins are all that remain of the great Mayan civilization that once stood in place of the jungle. In the first century A.D., the Mayan people dominated the forest and overharvested their natural resources until the land became barren and untenable for the next six centuries. Now lush and bursting with thousands of species of plants and animals, the mega diverse forests of the reserve and the local communities’ use of its resources has since improved. Today, forest management in the reserve is governed by a concession system that allows local peoples to use the forests for livelihoods and has become an internationally renowned example of sustainable community forestry; however, the pressures of modern civilization continue to threaten this unique ecosystem. All around the reserve, forest clearing for cattle, agriculture, and drug laundering expands further and further into the reserve. It’s in this contrasting landscape that the musicians of Maroon 5 and Guster came to learn the importance of knowing where the wood used in their guitars and other wood products comes from.

Covering nearly 2.1 million hectares, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is Central America’s largest protected area and home to globally important biodiversity and cultural heritage.

The air that I breathe: Forest management for the people, by the people

“There are only two types of wood. There is wood that’s sustainable and there is wood that’s not,” Spencer Ortiz, manager of FORESCOM, the reserve’s community-owned sawmill, explained to James, Jesse, and Adam over the low thrum of the facility’s operating saw. FORESCOM processes timber from community forest concessions and only accepts and produces verified sustainable wood. “Sustainable wood is when you have real people with faces and names that stand and live in the forest and are willing to assume responsibility to make sure it stands there for many years. This takes investment, in many ways. Investment directly in the trees and the land. Investment in the people themselves – because each time it becomes more complex to educate that sustainability means satisfying your needs but not taking more than the forest has to give us.”

With this long term vision and commitment to the forest’s future, the communities that manage nine of the eleven forest concessions in the reserve follow precise harvesting plans. These harvesting plans base each harvests’ cut on the expected growth and population of future generations of trees, which is established through meticulous yearly forest inventory audits. As Otiz said, this requires investment by the community, which includes safeguarding the forest and protecting against threats, such as forest fires or illegal logging. Illegal logging is of particular concern in forest concessions along the Belizean border, where communities, with support from Guatemala’s army, carry out regular patrols deep into the forest to search for illegal loggers.

James, Jesse, and Adam travelled into the dense forest of Northern Guatemala to visit the Yaloch forest concession. Yaloch is managed by the El Esfuerzo community enterprise and lies along the Belizean border, an area that was once a hotspot for illegal logging from the 1960s to the 1980s. During this period, rampant logging throughout the reserve nearly destroyed these forests; however, illegal logging continues today in the core zones to the west of the reserve, due to a lack of sufficient resources and enforcement from the government. The National Council on Protected Areas (CONAP for its Spanish acronym), Guatemala’s natural resource and protected areas management body, is urgently in need of increased resources to help fight illegal logging and the illegal timber trade. In contrast, forest cover remains fairly intact in the east of the reserve where the community concessions lie, with little illegal logging.

The musicians explore the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, which is thought to have been home to nearly 25,000 people, but has since been overgrown by the rainforest.

Lucky Strike: Finding the right tree

El Esfuerzo’s forest manager, Wilson Martínez, led the musicians to find big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)—considered the gold of the reserve—used in high-value furniture, paneling, and guitars. While pointing out an impressive 30 meter mahogany tree, Martínez explained that a crucial part of their management plan includes preserving mahogany trees with the very best form, stature, and growth as “seed trees” that pass on their genetic material to future generations. These seed trees play a vital role in regenerating the forest by maintaining a healthy and productive forest for Wilson’s children and grandchildren.

Selecting which trees to cut and process into guitars for musicians like James, Jesse, and Adam is a delicate task, as these community harvesters may only cut one tree per hectare—that is, only one healthy, marketable tree over 60 centimeters in diameter, grown in an area that is ecologically and culturally safe for logging in order to not disturb water sources or any of the thousands of unexcavated Mayan ruins scattered throughout the forests of Petén.

The harvested trees then arrive at FORESCOM, where they’re processed into lumber, furniture, or guitar parts, and exported to companies in the Dominican Republic, Europe, and the United States. While visiting the lumber yard, the musicians saw the beginnings of a guitar as mahogany headstocks dried in the kiln before joining the hundreds of stacked, multicolored wood pallets ready for export.

“In this kiln, we pulled a headstock out and saw that it was inscribed with which tree it was from, from the area where they were cutting trees down, and of that tree, which slice it was, “ said Jesse Carmichael, explaining the tracking system employed to guarantee that each piece of wood is sustainably sourced. “Therefore, whoever gets this guitar conceivably could trace the path of the wood all the way back to the specific tree.”

Spencer Ortíz, manager of the community-owned sawmill, FORESCOM, explains the tracking system that allows this mahogany guitar headstock to be tracked back to its source.

Keep it together: The future of the Reserve

International recognition of the reserve’s community forest management model and its value in protecting forests, managing timber and non-timber resources sustainably, and increasing local capacity has come through the advocacy work of the Association of Petén Forest (ACOFOP for its Spanish acronym), an association comprised of the nine community concession holders and other forest stakeholders.

“I think the reason why the community concessions are working so well is because they’re directly invested in it,” said Adam Gardner after visiting El Esfuerzo’s forest concession and meeting the community members managing the forest. “This is where they’re from, this is their home and who’s going to tend better to their own backyard than the people living there?”

Yet within Guatemala itself, authorities have been slow to acknowledge the success of community forest management, and the long-term security of the community concessions is tenuous. The concessions are restricted to 25-year terms, despite the fact that a single rotation of sustainable logging is 30 years at a bare minimum and concession management plans currently consider a 90 year time horizon. The concessions were established in the 1990s and 2000s and are now nearing the end of their terms. Once these contracts end they will go up for bid by the government, and there’s no guarantee they will stay in community hands – or even continue to be logged sustainably. With each change in government the risk of the communities losing control of and access to the forest becomes a greater possibility.

“At the same time that we’re using the forest, we take care of the forest,” explained Sergio Ortíz, a community member of the El Esfuerzo community forest enterprise. “We protect the forest and we’re planning for the future, for 90 years for example, because I have kids and my kids will have kids and I want them to have [the forest] in the future too.“

Makes me wonder: Where does my wood come from?

With every wood products purchase, consumers have the opportunity to support positive examples of forest production, or instead, often unwittingly, to finance illegal logging. Illegal logging devastates forests, ecosystems, and local livelihoods around the world, fueling organized crime and corruption.

“Everything that we’re seeing here is happening within this greater context of illegal logging,” said Adam Gardner of sustainable forest production. “Unfortunately the rule is deforestation and devastation, organized crime, child and slave labor, drug and human trafficking. This is the reality.”

For example, in September 2015 a shipment of Amazon rainforest timber was illegally exported from Peru to the United States, equal to three football fields of precious Amazon rainforest. Two months later, the same vessel transported another shipment of timber documented as illegal in origin by OSINFOR, Peru’s forest oversight organization. Following the seizure of a portion of this illegal timber, OSINFOR’s offices were firebombed and were later the site of protests arranged by timber producers and exporters. Protesters proceeded to display coffins with the name of OSINFOR’s president, Rolando Navarro, and two other officials, as clear threats to OSINFOR for taking action against illegal logging and carrying out its mandate. Navarro has since been removed from his position by the president of Peru despite his dedication, and even risking his life, to control Peru’s significant illegal timber trade.

Protests from the timber industry assemble outside the offices of Peru's forest oversight insitutition, OSINFOR, displaying coffins with the names of OSINFOR's President, Rolando Navarro, and Fabiola Muñoz-Dodero. the Executive Director of Peru's Forest and Wildlife Service, SERFOR.

“There’s a whole dimension to this situation that’s not just about the environmental impact of unsustainable forestry practices,” said Jesse Carmichael. “There’s a real danger right now for the people that are speaking up for the forests in places like Peru, and here in Guatemala, as well. There’s been violence from the people who are doing illegal logging towards the people who are trying to prevent it. It’s a dangerous situation…on an environmental level and on a human level as well.”

When purchasing a table, piece of flooring, or a guitar, consumers are not only choosing a beautiful piece of woodwork, but also making an impact, for better or worse, on the forests of the world. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the consumer to know where the wood in that guitar with the perfect color and grain comes from, and what kind of impact its harvest had on local forests, wildlife, and communities.

“It’s the demand for these woods that drives this whole industry,” said James Valentine. “I don’t think consumers are aware of the problem and change could happen if consumers start to ask where their wood is coming from.”

Consumers’ ability to avoid illegally sourced timber is made possible by the U.S. Lacey Act, which was amended in 2008 to prohibit trade in illegally sourced plants and plant products. The Lacey Act is a fundamental tool in the fight against illegal logging and its devastating impacts, and in the last seven years it has effectively decreased the demand for cheap, illegal timber. Yet, until the Lacey Act is fully implemented and enforced, illegal timber will continue to make its way into U.S. markets.

“Laws like the Lacey Act are critical because it puts accountability on the importing country and that allows the exporting country to do good practices,” said Adam Gardner, who is also the director of the non-profit Reverb, which works with musicians to green their tours, and more recently, to call on the music industry to only use legal wood in instruments. “A lot of us in the music world are concerned about the impacts on the environment while touring, but when we learn that the very instruments we’re playing our music with could be made of wood that was stolen…it’s very alarming for all of us.”

James, Jesse, and Adam trek through the forest of the Yaloch concession, which covers 25,386 hectares of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The Lacey Act has also influenced the growth and success of legal, sustainable forest enterprises such as those in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere reserve; however, consumers must continue to search out and demand responsibly sourced timber in order to shut down markets for illegally logged wood.

“The international market needs a higher willingness to understand that cheap wood is wood that’s not sustainable,” said Spencer Ortíz of FORESCOM, explaining the impact consumer demand has on forests around the world. “By buying cheap wood they’re contributing to the drivers that deforest in other areas. And eventually that produces a big pressure over the areas that will be the last [forest] strongholds…and we’re not too far away from that reality. We’re already starting to see pressure build from bigger economies that want to access these resources.”

To learn more about James, Jesse, and Adam’s journey to Guatemala, look for EIA’s film in early 2016. Be sure to also check out Adam Gardner’s interview with American Public Media's Marketplace on his experience in Guatemala.

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