In August, federal authorities conducted simultaneous raids at Gibson Guitar Corp.’s Tennessee assembly plants in Nashville and Memphis, seizing guitars, wood, documents and electronic files.
Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Customs Service were looking for evidence that the company had illegally imported rosewood and ebony from India. Gibson uses the expensive woods to make the fret boards for its iconic instruments.
The raid marks the second time in two years that federal agents have paid a visit to Gibson. In November 2009, agents raided the company’s Nashville facility, seizing guitars and pallets of ebony that they alleged were illegally obtained from Madagascar.
That raid spawned a civil forfeiture suit that has since been temporarily suspended while federal attorneys contemplate filing criminal charges against Gibson or particular individuals-a process that could subject the company, its officials, or other individuals to fines or jail time.
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz denies any wrongdoing. He says Gibson has worked with organizations such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance to support sustainable sources of exotic woods, and the wood seized in the August raid was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a third-party organization that promotes responsible forest management.
Strangely, federal authorities now say they’re unconcerned with how the wood was harvested, but rather in what form it was imported. The wood in question includes 1,250 sawn ebony logs from India. The logs were cut to a size that could be used to make fret boards, but were unfinished. According to a federal affidavit, Indian law prohibits wood in this form from being exported.
Not surprisingly, Juszkiewicz feels bullied and confused. Having secured an eco-friendly source of ebony, Gibson is now told that it can import the wood if it’s been fully finished by Indian workers, but the company can’t import partially finished wood to be completed by American workers.
To be clear, governments around the world should take an active role in curbing international trade in rhino horns, tiger bones and other products made from endangered species. And we all have a stake in preserving what’s left of the world’s rapidly dwindling rain forests. (Illegal logging of exotic woods in Madagascar has been particularly egregious.)
Nevertheless, we wonder if the federal government might not have better things to do in Memphis than dog a company that has tried to do the right thing environmentally, kept manufacturing in the United States, and hired 580 people in the past two years. As of July, the unemployment rate in Memphis stood at 10.9 percent, compared with 9.1 percent for the United States as a whole. Memphis ranks third in the United States in violent crime and second in property crime.
With statistics like that, you can be sure that Gibson guitars will be playing the blues for a long time to come.