Turn off your mobile for blackwood.

I think pipers can all agree that Highland bagpipes is not a very environmentally friendly instrument. You already face confiscation or arrest if you travel with your ivory mounts. And I’m sure many animal rights advocates frown at your hide bag.

But how much do we pipers know about the source of the wood that fuels our art? Aside from the basic specifications of the tree, the supply of African blackwood, or mpingo as it is locally known, would seem to have about 80 or more years of supply before being exhausted entirely. That’s a lot of bagpipes.

The continuous supply of mature blackwood today says more about a more active global marketplace than it does about the amount of supply. Population expansion, greater worldwide trade, and demand for particular goods all contribute to satisfactory supplies of blackwood as a byproduct. By itself though, the mpingo tree does not provide the local population, much of whom live in poverty, with a sustainable or viable option for their own prosperity. The greatest threat to the supply of African blackwood these days would seem to be the very global marketplace that provides greater trade in timber generally.  It’s estimated that 4 million hectares of African forest is lost for a variety of purposes (twice the area of New Jersey). Slash and burn techniques for land clearing account for 70 percent of that.

A decade of civil war and unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo—as well as spillover racial violence in neighboring countries such as Rwanda—has allowed unmanaged exploitation of a number of natural resources. Timber conservation is the least fashionable use of national funds in countries such as DRC. Locally, the mpingo tree is already easily ignored in favor of other economically viable harvests.
Next time you want to ponder the sustainable supply of mpingo, think of it the next time you make a call on your mobile phone. Who would have thought that an upgrade to that newer model phone—something so common to us all these days, would make a dent in the supply of wood available for bagpipes?

It is not something that typically comes to mind, but the need for coltan, the primary mineral in cell phone and computer components has led to a host of local abuses in the DRC, fueling years of political unrest as well as threatening the local fauna such as the mountain gorilla, which are poached indiscriminately to clear land. Corruption is rampant as is abhorrent criminality such as increased rape and murder.

Why does this matter to pipers? (Aside from the obvious humanitarian issues, of course.) Coltan is mined in the Congo river basin, deep in the heart of miombo woodlands—the prime habitat for commercially harvestable mpingo. In a region where fast money is to be made from digging in the dirt to feed a hearty appetite for electronic gizmos, an easy choice is made over commercial timber harvest when the land can be bought or stolen and clear cut for later mining. It’s estimated that 1.1 million hectares of forests per year disappear in this area—an area nearly the size of Connecticut. Timber money is just icing on the cake.

The global appetite for flashy communication gadgets perhaps makes the greatest contribution to the instabilities under which all timber supplies—including mpingo—suffer. Combine the valuable blackwood with the ubiquitous mobile phone and you get the pretentious luxury phone shown below from Gresso. No price is available yet, but if you have to ask…

Look for the upcoming Fall issue of The Voice for Part I of a feature article examining the wood that drives our art.

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