The Congo is good for wood. And for gorillas!
Yes, the hot, humid rainforest climate is perfect for favored instrument-making species like ebony and African mahogany, with the jungle soil rich and moist enough to support hearty growth. And it’s perfect for citizens of the forest, like gorillas and chimpanzees, too.
But there’s more to it than that.
We can all feel good about wood from the Republic of Congo, says Tom Bedell, because the political and social climate is just as healthy.
“The problem,” Bedell says, “is that most of the countries in the tropical rainforest have unscrupulous governments and horrible forestry practices. If you don't have a combination of a government that's not on the take; an economic benefit to the people that live in the forest, so they have an investment in protecting it, rather than cutting it down; and customers willing to pay prices that can sustain those policies, then corruption comes in.”
“Those three things need to come together, which they are in the Republic of Congo—they're not in Cameroon, and they're not in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Bedell recently returned to Bend from a trip to the Congo accompanied by tonewood specialist Nicholas Weber. To his great disappointment, Bedell did not get to see any gorillas or chimpanzees in the wild, but the duo saw first hand that the habitat is healthy enough to support such fauna, along with the country’s indigenous people.
Bedell and Weber, owner of Tonewoods S.L., in coastal Spain, spent time in Pokola with Olam International agribusiness subsidiary Congolaise Industrielle Des Bois S.A. (CIB) to acquire selectively harvested ebony and African mahogany, potentially for use in many beautiful Bedell models, and to learn more about the remarkable management of the tropical Congo Basin Forest, which, Bedell notes, is second in size and scope only to the Amazon rainforest.
As part of the Seed-To-Song ethos, no clear-cut trees are ever used in Bedell guitars and every piece of wood, from back and sides to a fanciful headstock overlay, goes through the brand’s stringent Tonewood Certification Project.
Bedell and Weber were in the enormous Sangha Department thicket, following workers searching out specific trees, namely ones that actually help the forest heal itself by being culled.
Hydration is important when traveling and Bedell and Weber had the opportunity to heal themselves by drinking from machete-cut branches laden with sweet, natural water.
Weber (no relation to Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments) supplies much of the tonewood for Bedell, fashioning it into specific billets at his own mill near the Port of Valencia. He helped educate Bedell further on how conservation and luthiery can come together for the best of both worlds.
“He only sources Forest Stewardship Council certified wood,” Bedell exclaims, “which is huge.”
Together, they inspected an ebony trunk, admiring the dark heartwood so loved by musicians.
“Nicholas partnered with CIB in 2016 to acquire any African ebony that they harvest. In addition to shipping it whole and milling it in Spain, his company, using the most advanced wood processing technology, carefully dries it to exacting specifications. So, nine months from now, if we place an order for some fretboards and bridges, that tree might be the one that we would get.”
Bedell also appreciates the exceptional efforts of CIB, which was founded in 1968 and came under Olam’s wing in 2011. CIB, based in Ouesso, employs almost 1,000 Congolese in Pokola. The company has built housing, schools, sports complexes, and radio and TV stations, improving the lifestyle of the community. Additionally, it has built hospitals were workers, families and the indigenous forest population receive free treatment and medication.
“They pull water out of the river,” Bedell says, “and purify it all. They provide it to the entire town, not just to the people who work there. They have their own electrical generation plant, and they recycle, taking all of the sawdust and wood waste product they generate from the mill and using it to create energy.”
CIB manages 1.3 million FSC certified hectares of the Congo Basin forest. Each year, a tiny fraction of the standing timber is removed, always with an eye towards the greater good of the habitat.
“They cut less than two percent of any given carefully mapped section,” Bedell says. “When they haul those few trees out, they then close up that section and they don't go back into that area for 30 years, so that the forest rejuvenates itself, which happens even faster than that. They're trying to minimize their footprint in the forest.“
Most of the giant logs—Bedell was able to strike a da Vinci pose in front of an enormous Sapele trunk—are carefully milled at CIB’s main facility in Pokola, which is like a small city unto itself. Bedell Guitars does not currently use sapele, but it too is a popular species supplied by Nicholas Weber.
CIB and Weber are both very aware and fully compliant with the Lacey Act and CITES, which govern use and distribution of natural products in the U.S. and worldwide. As noted, all of the wood taken from CIB’s stake in the Republic of Congo is fully certified, legal and documented.
“They're just really, really doing an amazing job of making sure that the forest is 100% sustainable,” Bedell says. “One of the stewardship rules is that you can't replant, you have to let the forest be what Mother Nature wants it to be. CIB’s practices follow that dictum.”
Bedell, who has traveled the world in his quest to respect the earth while producing yesterday’s guitars today, wishes he had found the same situation on his visit to Madagascar a few years back.
Instead, it was like a dark mirror, reflecting the opposite of the cooperation found in the Republic of Congo.
“There's a real contrast there,” he says, shaking his head.
As a result of governmental corruption and terrible mismanagement of natural resources, Bedell will not use wood from the country, instead sourcing rosewood from India and Honduran mahogany from Guatemala.
“For us to take wood and turn it into a guitar, all of the conditions have to be right,” Bedell says. “We are committed to the entire ecosystem.”
And gorillas, too!