big pau brasil photo

A young Pernambuco tree

The word ‘deforestation’ strikes a chill into the heart of anyone concerned with the future of our planet as millions of hectares of forest disappear each year and global warming becomes a nightmarish reality. We might respond by using recycled paper or ensure that the wood for a DIY project comes from sustainable sources. But what about the materials which form our cellos and bows?

As users of instruments and bows we rely on some of the finest woods the world can offer: weather-hardened spruce from the Alps, flamed maple from the great forests of Eastern Europe, dense ebony from Africa and, the least understood but most extraordinary and endangered wood of all, pernambuco from which all fine bows are made.

When Portuguese explorers discovered Brazil in 1500, a vast tract of rainforest – the Mata Atlantica – stretched 4,600 miles down the east coast of the continent. One of the most prolific trees was named ‘Pau Brasil’ by the Portuguese and gave Brazil its name. Over the following centuries, vast tracts of the Mata Atlantica were felled. Pau Brasil or Pernambuco as it is known in the West, was a popular bright red dyestuff in Europe and was exported in huge quantities. During Tourte’s lifetime when he searched the wharves for wood suitable for bow making, 168 acres of central Paris were piled high with pernambuco logs.

By the late 18th century, pernambuco had become the most popular wood for bow making due to its resilience, density, strength and ability to hold a fixed curve and it remains the only viable material for bow makers today. Pernambuco ceased to be exported as a dye in the mid 19th century after the discovery of aniline dyes but pressure on the trees continued as the fertile, lushly forested coast is also prime human habitat. 70% of Brazil’s population now lives where the Mata Atlantica once flourished and only 7% of the Mata Atlantica forest remains in scattered, beleaguered pockets leaving the pernambuco tree – along with a host of other flora and fauna unique to this part of Brazil – an endangered species.

‘It is hard to imagine a project which has so much historical, cultural and scientific significance.’ Professor Dietrich Burger.

In 1999 a group of senior French bow makers was contacted by the founder of Comurnat, an organisation forging links between the conservation of wild species and their commercial users. Marco Ciambelli had learned that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was considering listing pernambuco on one of its appendices. The most stringent listing of all – Appendix I – would restrict the commercial use of pernambuco as severely as that of ivory or tortoiseshell. Not only would this starve bow makers of their supplies of wood, but it would restrict the movement of any pernambuco bow already in existence, placing an appalling burden of clearance paperwork on each and every string player wishing to travel with a pernambuco bow.

Two of the bow makers at the first international meeting with Ciambelli were Klaus Grünke and Josef Gabriel, both of whom regularly participate in our Take a Bow exhibitions. They both knew that the survival of their profession was in the balance but Ciambelli encouraged them and their colleagues to take the conservation of pernambuco into their own hands to ensure the future of their trade.

‘We’ve come a long way since we sat in that cafe eight years ago and decided to do something,’ Klaus told me. The outcome of that meeting was the formation of the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI) which now has branches in France, Germany and the USA. The genius of the organisation has been to consult a wide range of scientists and organisations in Brazil in order to understand the root causes of deforestation and how best pernambuco could be conserved. The issues are complex, demanding a profound understanding of the political, economic and social situation in Brazil, as well as research into the Pau Brasil tree itself.

In 2003 the IPCI initiated Programa Pau Brasil, in partnership with a series of Brazilian organisations. The program covers 52 different conservation, education and scientific research projects, including the planting of 500,000 pernambuco trees over a five year period.

One of the major causes of deforestation in the Mata Atlantica over the last 20 years, particularly in the South Bahia province, was the fall in the price of cacao during the 1990’s. Cacao was traditionally planted in partially-cleared undergrowth beneath existing forest trees but in the 1990’s desperate farmers destroyed 50% of the cacao forest, turning it into more profitable pastureland.

Seedlings in plastic pots

Healthy pernambuco seedlings which were planted in Pernambuco State with funding from Take a Bow 2011

The Brazilian government is actively encouraging some of the poorest communities in the Bahia district to re-plant cacao but, like any rainforest under-canopy species, cacao does not thrive in direct sunlight. Programa Pau Brasil works with these communities, paying them to raise thousands of pernambuco seedlings in nurseries and then distributing the seedlings to farmers to provide their cacao bushes with much-needed shade. Depending on the speed of growth, pernambuco can produce bow-quality heart wood in 30-40 years, giving farming communities a valuable long-term cash crop.

Lynn Hannings, President of IPCI-USA attended a meeting in Brazil this February. ‘It was so exciting to visit the plantations and see healthy young trees towering over my head; last time I saw them they were little six-inch seedlings and the farmers love them for the shade they bring.’

‘In recognition of our work CITES gave us an Appendix II listing. But the future is still uncertain’ Klaus Grünke

Alongside this planting programme, Programa Pau Brasil has established youth orchestras in two Bahia communities, where children are given a combined environmental and musical education. The orchestras make regular visits to the communities where pernambuco is being re-planted, playing concerts and communicating the importance of the species and the value of the wood.

I discussed the IPCI’s work with Professor Dietrich Burger, a senior forestry engineer with 30 year’s experience of teaching and working in Brazil. ‘In my opinion the IPCI are running an excellent programme. In Brazil there is a real conflict between economic development and conservation but Programa Pau Brasil covers every aspect; in fact, I think it is one of the most complete sustainability projects in existence because it addresses so many fields: cultural, social, educational, economic and political.’

By the time CITES reviewed pernambuco’s status in June 2007, the IPCI were able to report on the progress of Programa Pau Brasil including the planting of 140,000 seedlings, research into the propagation of pernambuco and DNA studies of pernambuco populations in five Brazilian states. CITES were warm in their praise for the project, acknowledging its success in addressing the link between conservation and poverty.

The Brazilian representative at the meeting said he hoped that pernambuco would remain a part of the Brazilian landscape, while at the same time continuing to delight audiences around the world in the hands of musicians.

Klaus Grünke was at the meeting. ‘Even though CITES regard our program as an ideal conservation model, the outcome in June was rather close, I can tell you. But as a result of our ambitious programme and in recognition of our work, CITES gave pernambuco an Appendix II listing. But the future is still uncertain; unless our programme succeeds, CITES might have to revoke the decision they made as a sign of their support for our work.’

Lynn Hannings is passionately committed to Programa Pau Brazil. ‘Some of our Brazilian partners were concerned that we would walk away, once the immediate threat from CITES had lifted. But our continued support since last June has proved our commitment and this has been met with great appreciation by our partners and the Brazilian government.’

Without the tireless work of the IPCI members – all gifted bow makers taking precious time out of their workshops – not only would an exhibition like Take a Bow be impossible, but every string player would by now have been required to register their bows with CITES and would have to complete a complex set of paperwork every time they travelled.

We have been members of the IPCI since 2002 and have decided to make an average donation of £20 to the IPCI on the sale of each contemporary bow we sell. We also hope that others will feel moved to support the IPCI. A small annual donation would constitute a powerful contribution to the future of bow making, the continued freedom to travel with pernambuco bows and a musically relevant way to reduce your carbon footprint.

© Sarah Mnatzaganian 2008

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Our latest exhibition raised £1,400 for a new IPCI pernambuco conservation project being established in Pernambuco State in north eastern Brazil.

Pernambuco leaf

Pernambuco leaf

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