Bagpipes an environmental threat?
They were once outlawed for being used as weapons of war. Now, bagpipes have been blasted as an environmental menace. Over-intensive logging means that the African wood used to make Scotland’s national instrument faces being wiped out. Conservation groups are letting out skirls of protest, urging musicians and instrument manufacturers to make sure their pipes come from eco-friendly sources. As part of the campaign, Scots are being asked to fund the planting of “bagpipe trees” in a bid to atone for the environmental damage.
Traditionally the chanter on the bottom of Highland pipes, which is used to create the melody, was made from native woods such as bog oak. But Scottish mariners who traveled to Africa in the 18th century returned with supplies of African Blackwood, which proved to be far more resilient and produced a sweeter sound. Since then the species, known as Mpingo in Swahili, has been a staple component of most quality pipes. Conservation group Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said urgent action is needed to prevent the species being lost. “With its beauty, fine grain, durable structure and natural oils no other wood looks – or sounds – the same as African Blackwood,” said its campaign co-coordinator Georgina Magin. “But it has been heavily exploited for woodwind instruments like bagpipes and stocks are now seriously depleted. The African tree takes 80 years to reach just 40cm in height. “If woodlands and the valuable timbers they contain are managed unsustainably, species such as African Blackwood will become extinct. “Already in northern Tanzania, where unsustainable logging occurs, Blackwood and other species are threatened with commercial extinction. “This is a pivotal time for Blackwood, and musicians can play a crucial role in ensuring this unique timber remains available long into the future.” It is believed that as much as 70% of Blackwood trees in Tanzania have already been felled.
The African-based Mpingo Conservation Project (MCP) is working with Tanzanian residents to create, own and manage sustainable supplies of the timber. When managed in this way communities, who previously received a pittance, can earn one hundred times more per log of Blackwood harvested from the forest,” said spokesman Andrew Gordon-Maclean.
“In this way, Blackwood, which is one of the most valuable hardwoods in the world, could provide an economic incentive to local people to protect and sustainably manage their neighbouring forests. The increased revenue will make a significant difference to rural livelihoods and help alleviate extreme poverty in some of the poorest communities in East Africa.”
The MCP and FFI are hopeful that by 2009 sustainably certified Blackwood will be on the market. “This will mean that musicians will be in no doubt that the wood in the instrument they are buying has been legally felled and a fair price has been paid to its local custodians,” said Gordon-Maclean. “We would urge concerned pipers to demand their suppliers explain where they source their Blackwood so it is not at the expense of poor African farmers and the global environment.”
In the meantime, people have been flocking to help reforest parts of Tanzania. Ethical present firm Good Gifts is urging people to plant bagpipe trees. It is pledging to plant 21 Blackwood saplings for £15, 50 for £35 and 60 for £42. Spokeswoman Kirsty Thomson said: “The response so far – particularly from Scotland – has been incredible. “The gift of bagpipe trees is becoming an unlikely best-seller this Christmas. “It is helping to rebuild forests, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, generate income and keep musicians skirling.”
But pipe major and manufacturer David MacMurchie, who uses Blackwood, was less than impressed by the campaign.
“I for one am not going be made to feel guilty by a bunch of misguided environmental do-gooders,” he said. “I am sure that the communities in Africa use a hell of a lot more Blackwood than bagpipe manufacturers. “It is unfair and misleading to try to blame it all on us.” MacMurchie, a former member of the band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, said he was happy to make pipes from plastic, but said the overwhelming public demand was for traditional wooden instruments. Other alternative woods, such as ebony, are vulnerable to splitting and, in some areas, are themselves under threat. Most pipe manufacturers believe that no other wood has the same durability and resonance as the Blackwood.
The full article appeared in Scotland On Sunday newspaper.