By Kelly E. Saxton
The African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) is an organization focused on the re-planting of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon, Fabaceae), or mpingo as it is locally known in Tanzania in the Kiswahili language.1 The organization was co-founded in 1996 by James Harris, a Texas woodworker, and Sebastian Chuwa, a botanist from Tanzania.2 The wood of these trees is regularly used to create woodwind instruments such as clarinets, oboes, flutes, and bagpipes.3 Though the tree is currently included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species as “lower risk/near threatened,”4 blackwood is in danger of being over-harvested, which could lead to its eventual economic extinction.
ABCP’s concerns regarding the future of African blackwood stem from previous experience. Around the year 1900, another tree used to make woodwind instruments became “economically extinct,” or no longer accessible in the quantity or quality to fulfill commercial demand. Cocoswood (Brya ebenus, Fabaceae) used to be the “wood of choice”3 for woodwinds, and though it still grows in the Caribbean islands, it is rare and no longer a useable source for instruments, according to Harris, who serves as ABCP director (e-mail April 4, 2008).
Mpingo is a highly dense wood and oily in nature. These properties make it ideal for instruments that are subject to moisture generated by human breath, according to Harris. Also, “the best players seem to prefer an all natural-wood instrument. The ‘feel’ and warmth of wood in the hands of the player is an important component of the music produced and cannot be scientifically quantified,” said Harris. However, while harvesting the mpingo, there tends to be a 90% loss of wood during milling. Instruments require a perfect piece of wood, and mpingo has numerous small defects that can cause problems in the manufacturing process. The ingrown bark, knots, and natural voids in the wood may cause problems during the stress of milling, according to Harris. Some woodworkers like Harris will purchase the piles of rejected mpingo wood, but there is still a large amount of wood that goes to waste. Harris practices ornamental turning, a kind of woodwork for creating products such as boxes, perfume bottles, etc. He uses excess blackwood for an ornamental effect, since it takes a brilliant polish and produces a brilliant surface. Examples of his use of mpingo can be found at www.ornamentalturner.com.
Overall Harris uses very little wood for his company, but through ABCP he has helped fund the replanting of over 200,000 mpingo trees since 1996. The organization also celebrated a milestone in 2004 when it reached 1 million trees replanted, including several species besides mpingo.2
Some musical instrument makers have experimented with other African woods to see how they would fare as replacements for mpingo. According to Harris, mopane or mopani (Colophospermum mopane, Fabaceae) is almost as dense as mpingo, though it lacks mpingo’s special oiliness.
“The results seem adequate,” said Harris, “but as far as we know, mopane trees do not exist in overly large numbers. And if they were to replace mpingo, they would likely have a limited duration of commercial utility. Mopane, or any hardwood species that are slow-growing and take generations to mature, will begin to decrease in availability if used commercially without sustainable harvesting methods or replanting programs for its continuation.” In addition, a mopane instrument would have a different intonation than an mpingo instrument to a musician’s trained ear and might not be as well received.
“Were it not so, all woodwinds could be made of plastic, as it is a durable material and much less expensive than wood as the raw material for woodwind instruments,” said Harris. “But only beginner’s instruments are so made.”
An oboe player named Brenda Schuman-Post of San Francisco, California, has also taken great interest in mpingo. She performs a 2-hour slide-show presentation called “Mpingo’s Fruit” at college campuses and music players’ conventions around the United States to spread the word about the importance of this tree. More information in available on her Web site: www.oboesoftheworld.com/perf3mpingo.htm.
Sebastian Chuwa, ABCP co-founder, leads the conservation efforts for mpingo in Africa. A conservationist in Tanzania for over 30 years, Chuwa was a consultant and interviewee for the 1992 PBS documentary “Tree of Music” highlighting the loss of this resource, which was possibly the first time this issue received international attention and how Harris learned of the issue.2 In 1996 Harris contacted Chuwa about a joint effort to conserve mpingo (i.e., ABCP). He would spread the word to musicians, woodworkers, and other conservationists with the help of his wife Bette Stockbauer-Harris, who is also a woodworking artist. Chuwa would organize people in his community, as well as educate children, grade-school age and older, about this resource. Chuwa is currently a professional safari guide, and he organizes field trips for students to learn about the need for conservation efforts. Chuwa works in congruence with his wife, Elizabeth Chuwa, a teacher of pre-school through middle-school-aged children in the Village of Sungu, to educate the young about conservation issues. Sebastian Chuwa has also created over 100 youth clubs to foster environmental awareness and work to conserve various Tanzania resources. A recipient of the 2007 J. Sterling Morton Award from the National Arbor Day Foundation, Chuwa has steered ABCP in planting almost 2 million trees (of various species) to date.
Mpingo is well known throughout Africa for the many medicinal remedies made from its bark, leaves, and roots. According to Chuwa, the roots are used to treat abdominal pain, hernia, intestinal parasites, gonorrhea, headache, rhinitis, and bronchitis. The bark is used as an antidiarrheic or antibacterial. The leaves may treat throat inflammations, fever, syphilis, gonorrhea, and dysentery. The shavings of the heartwood mixed with lotions can also be used to create a topical cream used to treat skin diseases and certain fungi, said Chuwa. These medicinal benefits would likewise be a great loss without the replanting of the tree.
More information about conserving African blackwood and supporting conservation efforts is available at the ABCP Web site (www.blackwoodconservation.org) and the Mpingo Conservation Project (MCP), another organization concerned with preserving this valuable resource (www.mpingoconservation.org).
- Mpingo Fact Sheet. ABCP Web site. Available at http://www.blackwoodconservation.org/facts.html. Accessed February 15, 2008.
- The People behind the project page. ABCP Web site. Available at http:// www.blackwoodconservation.org/who.html. Accessed April 7, 2008.
- Blackwood & Woodwind Instruments Page. ABCP Web site. Available at http://www.blackwoodconservation.org/music.html. Accessed February 15, 2008.
- IUCN Red list Web page. 2007 IUCN Red List of Endangered Species Web site. Available at http://www.iucnredlist.org. Accessed April 7, 2008.