On Wednesday, federal agents raided two Gibson guitar factories, in Memphis and Nashville, searching for ebony wood brought into the United States illegally. They seized "several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars," Gibson said on its website. The U.S. Department of Justice has been fighting with Gibson in court since it first raided the Memphis plant on Nov. 17, 2009, seizing guitar components allegedly made of illegal ebony, as well as six complete guitars, according to news reports. It charges, under a federal conservation law called the Lacey Act, that the instrument maker used wood that was imported illegally. But Gibson says the government is misinterpreting the law, and that it has done nothing wrong.
The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law in India. (If the same wood from the same tree was finished by Indian workers, the material would be legal.) This action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India.
The wood the Government seized on August 24 is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier and is FSC Controlled, meaning that the wood complies with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is an industry-recognized and independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC Controlled Wood standards require, among other things, that the wood not be illegally harvested and not be harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights.
According to the court documents online, the government first started investigating the company for wood taken from Madagascar, and that's where the wood and guitars seized in 2009 came from. In a 2009 search warrant affidavit, Fish and Wildlife agent Kevin Seiler claimed the company knowingly bought wood from a German vendor named Nagal, who dealt in wood that hadn't been authorized for export from Madagascar. No documents were available online in support of the latest search, which appears to have focused on wood from India, rather than Madagascar.
A June 4 filing further outlining the illegality of the Madagascar wood has been sealed, thanks to a motion to seal that was executed in late July. But a July 7 story in Musical Merchandise Magazine quotes from internal Gibson emails it reportedly contains:
[A] Gibson employee…wrote that "[t]he true Ebony species preferred by Gibson Musical Instruments is found only in Madagascar (Diospryos perrieri). This is a slow-growing tree species with very little conservation protection and supplies are considered to be highly threatened in its native environment due to over exploitation." In fact, [he] spent two and a half weeks in Madagascar this June , writing on his return, "I represented our company along with two other guitar manufacturers… All legal timber and wood exports are prohibited because of wide spread corruption and theft of valuable woods like rosewood and ebony." On February 25, 2009, in a reference to the potential long term solution, [he] wrote… that the company Maderas Barber "has been in the business a long time and may be able to help begin some legitimate harvests. Mr. [Roger] Thunam on the other hand should now be able to supply Nagel with all the rosewood and ebony for the grey market."
Gibson, which has refused a government order to surrender the seized materials, says the wood was imported legally. "Gibson has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government and these materials, which have been filed in federal court, show that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated," its statement reads. A spokesman for the company hasn't yet returned a call for comment, but we'll update the story if he does.
Ebony's density and deep, black color make it especially sought-after by instrument-makers. But as a post on Downtown Memphis points out, not only are the trees themselves endangered, they act as habitat for other endangered species in Madagascar. One is the silky sifaka lemur, which the Smithsonian Magazine reports is one of the "world's rarest mamals." It lives in Madagascar's northeastern mountains, and there are thought to be just a few hundred left.