TED Case Studies
Number 636
by Uta Saoshiro

Ebony, Music, and Deforestation in East Africa

General Information
Legal Cluster
Bio-Geographic Cluster
Trade Cluster
Environment Cluster
Other Clusters


I. Identification

1. The Issue

As beautiful and hard as polished stone, wood from the ebony tree found in East Africa encompasses a host of complex issues and disputes. From environmentalists wanting to preserve this treasure of nature, to governments, industries, and woodcarvers dependent on this wood, there is no easy solution in working towards preservation and sustainable management of this species. It is clear that there must be cooperation among all stakeholders involved in preserving this wood, not only to protect the environment, but also to preserve the industries that sustain so many lives.

2. Description

The Instrument Industry

Ebony (D.Melanoxylon), known more accurately in Swahili as mpingo, is a valuable African blackwood for a variety of uses. Found mainly in Tanzania and Mozambique, this gnarled tree is at the center of a complex dispute between reconciling trade interests and the preservation of the environment. The international commercial demand for this tree comes primarily from Europe, the US, and Japan, where ebony is used to make the finest woodwind instruments.1 Known as the "Tree of Music," it is the most desired wood to make clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes for professional musicians. Due to its high demand, ebony is sold at a price of 12,000 pounds (approx. $17,000) per cubic meter, making it the most expensive timber per volume in Africa.2

The Woodcarving Industry

Ebony is also a major source of income for the tourist industries in Kenya and Tanzania, where beautiful and intricate wood carvings of wildlife and cultural themes are very popular among tourists. The most well known are the wood carvings that originate from the Makonde people of southern Tanzania. Some of the more intricate Makonde carvings are sold at an initial price of $1,000. The Wakamba people of Kenya adopted this craft from the Makonde, and subsequently became an extended family-based business network for the Wakamba people.3 An estimated 60,000-80,000 wood carvers in Kenya make their living from this industry alone.4




Makonde "Tree of Life" carving*

Local Exploitation

This unusually hard and dense wood has several different uses for the local people. Because of its hardness, it is valuable for making durable utensils and tools for the local people (such as hoes). It is also a very high-energy yielding fuel, which makes it ideal for making charcoal. Other parts of the tree, such as the leaves and bark, provide fodder for animals, mulch for the earth, and is used for local medicines.5 Rapid population growth in Tanzania has also endangered many of the forests, which have been burnt down for agricultural use.6

The Issue

With the high demand of ebony from the international, national, and local level, some 50,000 ebony trees are cut down in Kenya every year. There are only a few pockets of ebony forests left in Kenya, with slow and inadequate action in replanting the tree. The situation is such that Kenya has to import ebony from Tanzania to meet the growing demand for their wood carving industry. The lack of adequate infrastructure in Tanzania makes many of the trees in remote areas hard to access, and therefore "protected" in a sense. It is estimated that the remaining supplies of harvestable wood in Tanzania will be depleted in twenty to thirty years, unless corrective and regenerative measures are taken.

The Kenyan and German government, assisted by Fauna and Flora International (an international wildlife conservation body protecting plants), tried to propose a regulation of the ebony trade at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in 1994, but were met with strong opposition from the delegates of Tanzania and Mozambique.7 With the revenues from the instrument industry as a vital part of the Tanzanian and Mozambique economies, such regulations would jeopardize one of their main resources for foreign exchange. However, if regulatory and regenerative measures are not taken, the ebony wood supply that is so important for both biodiversity conservation and the local economies will be threatened to extinction. It is therefore left up to national legislation and concerned conservation organizations to solve this complex dilemma.

1995 SoundWood Meeting on Mpingo in Maputo, Mozambique

After mpingo failed to be included for protection under CITES, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) coordinated the 1995 SoundWood Meeting on Mpingo in Maputo, Mozambique to bring all of the major stakeholders together. Representatives from Kenya, Tanzania, members of the wood carving and music industries, CITES, and other major conservation groups were present to discuss a coordinated plan to preserve the ebony tree. It was concluded at the meeting that there was not enough research and data available on the trade, biodiversity issues, and local exploitation for it to qualify for a CITES proposal. The agreement reached from the Maputo meeting was to devote energy and research in understanding the factors involved in its exploitation (yearly wood extraction rates, local needs, biodiversity implications) so that all stakeholders could together implement an effective strategy to preserve the species.8 Unfortunately, lack of funding has hindered the process, though smaller efforts such as the African Blackwood Conservation Project and The Cambridge Mpingo Project have been working to research and preserve the tree in Tanzania.

1997 GoodWood Conference in Nairobi, Kenya

In Kenya, a "GoodWood Campaign" has been launched after a December 1997 meeting in Nairobi, involving People and Plants, a UNESCO project, KCCU (Kenya Carving Cooperative Union), the Mennonite Central Committee, other conservation and forestry organizations, and other concerned NGOs. The goal of the project is promote the sustainable use of the tree by encouraging/funding research, replanting efforts, and promoting alternative "good woods" such as mango, neem, and jacaranda for wood carvers to use. Consumer education to buy products made from these "good woods" are also part of this initiative.9

3. Related Cases

4. Author and Date: Uta Saoshiro, May 9, 2001

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and Allegation

There is a general consensus that there is not enough data on the ebony tree trade and environment situation to merit a CITES proposal. The national governments, conservation groups, NGOs, and local communities have therefore come together to work for a viable solution to address both the trade and environment aspects of this issue.

6. Forum and Scope: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique

7. Decision Breadth: Many

8. Legal Standing: Law

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Africa

b. Geographic Site: Africa

c. Geographic Impact: Kenya; Tanzania


10. Sub-National Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: TROPICAL

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Regulation

Kenya: The Kenyan government was scheduled to implement legislation under the Forestry Department to ban the harvesting of ebony from public land and protected forests in January 2001. The sentence for offenders would be a one-month prison sentence and a fine of 10 times the value of the cut wood. However, several obstacles prevent this legislation from being effective. As noted in recent Nation article (main Kenyan newspaper), there is mistrust between communities near forests and the forest guards from the Forestry Department. Second, enforcement and management of protecting the forests by the Department is at most arbitrary, with plenty of opportunities for officers to collect bribes. Third, the author notes that the Department lacks funding for it to run efficiently and implement such legislation (to see full article from The Nation, click here).10

Tanzania: In Tanzania an official permit is required to cut down a blackwood tree. This provision is intended to limit the harvesting of blackwood by levying a tax on harvesters, but it is also intended as means for officials to be able to keep records on the local extraction rates of blackwood in general. But most of the implementation problems that Kenya faces are also present in Tanzania as well.11

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Indirect

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes Wood

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes Deforestation

15. Trade Product Identification:

16. Economic Data

  Kenya Tanzania

Industry Output (Earnings)

The wood carving industry generates $20 million a year. Exact data for how much of this revenue comes from ebony products alone could not be obtained.12 The wood for the instrument industry generates $1.5 million a year. Blackwoods in general are the third highest forest exchange earner in Tanzanian forestry.13

"Trade in Forest Products" from World Resources 2000-2001

Kenya earns $30 million in exports from forest products; it is 4% of the nation's total exports.

Tanzania earns $6 million in exports from forest products; it is 40% of the nation's total exports.

Employment 60,000-80,000 people are employed in the wood carving industry. n/d
Extraction Rate 50,000 mpingo trees are felled each year. Estimated 20,000-30,000 are felled each year.


17. Impact of Trade Restriction: LOW

Proponents of the "GoodWood Campaign" suggest raising the price of mpingo products and the wood itself to better reflect its ecological value as an vulnerable species. This extra revenue could also then be used to promote tree nurseries for keeping a sustainable supply of mpingo. Consumers of woodcarvings and the music industry would most likely be willing to pay for the higher price, though the higher price could also encourage illegal harvesting of wood.

18. Industry Sector: WOOD

19. Exporters and Importers:

Case Exporter: Kenya, Tanzania

Case Importer: US, Japan, UK, France, Germany


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: DEFORESTATION

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: Dalbergia Melanoxylon, an African blackwood known as mpingo in Swahili.

Type: Ebony

Diversity: There are hundreds of species of ebony, most of which can be considered endangered16.

A typical ebony tree**

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

Impact: HIGH

Effect: SCALE

Biodiversity Conservation issues: Ebony is part of many other species within the Miombo Woodlands system, which used to cover vast areas of the African savannah from Ethiopia to South Africa. It now covers about 5 million square km, "supporting 100 million people with food, fuel, building materials, medicines and water."17 The Ebony tree serves as a soil stabilizer and enricher, as well as a barrier to spreading desertification. Some other important biodiversity issues have been previously mentioned, such as the importance of the leaves of the tree which serve as fodder for migrating wildlife. Recent research done by the Cambridge Mpingo Project in Tanzania also shows that the tree serves as a home to invertebrates and nesting birds.18 In Kenya, the People and Plants project (under UNESCO) mention that in addition to eroding the sustainability of the wood base, possible degradation of the species due to some populations being decimated or destroyed is another conservation issue of great concern.19

23. Urgency and Lifetime: Medium and 10-20 years

Urgency (Years to Extinction): Possible extinction is estimated in 20-30 years in Tanzania. Currently there is an estimated 3 million trees left in Tanzania, 600,000 of which are suitable for harvesting, and a 20-30,000 tree per year extraction rate. In Kenya only a few pockets of mpingo remain, so that many wood carving centers have become dependent on supplies from Tanzania.20

Lifetime: It takes about 60 years for a mpingo tree to grow to full maturity.21

24. Substitutes:


SoundWood***, a publication and project by FFI, raises awareness about the endangered timber species used for the musical instrument industry. It is encouraging the use of alternative material or sustainably harvested timber for musical instruments. A successful example of their efforts can be seen from Boosey and Hawkes, a leading clarinet maker in Illinois. They have developed a "green" line of oboes and clarinets, made from mpingo sawdust, fiber carbon, and epoxy glue. Other possible substitutes include using concrete and metals, where research has shown that as long as the material allows the wall of the instrument to remain rigid and smooth, it does not matter what material the instrument is made of.22 Despite the research, professional musicians still feel that there is no substitute for the quality of sound that an instrument made of ebony produces.23


The GoodWood Campaign promotes the use of Neem (Azdirachto indica), Mango (Mangifera indica), Grevillea (Grevillea robusta), and Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) as substitute materials for woodcarvings. Though ebony is one of the most favored woods within the carving industry in Kenya, the advantage of these alternative woods are that they are fast growing (10-15 years to reach maturity) and easily replacable. This Campaign also involves all major stakeholders, with funding from the EU under MESP (Kenya Micro-Enterprise Support Program), and implemented by the Mennonite Central Committee and KCCU to focus on sustainable product development.


The GoodWood Campaign hopes to promote a tree nursery for each carver cooperative that will grow these alternative woods to halt the use of the scarce supply of mpingo left in Kenya. Current efforts by the African Blackwood Conservation Project and Cambridge Mpingo Project to research and replenish the tree have also been small but important steps towards understanding the background and issues involved in the trade, and what the impacts are for the species and environment.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: Yes

Not only is the woodcarving industry a vital source of income for the Makonde and Akamba carvers, but it can also be seen as a unique expression of their culture and tribal past. It is a beautiful art form that should be preserved, but it is clear that these carvings must be produced sustainably to preserve this art form and source of revenue. The same can be said about the music industry, as clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes have been important tools of musical expression for centuries in the West. Efforts by the Forest Stewardship Council to promote the use among instrument makers of "accredited" timber harvested from sustainably managed forests is a first and vital step towards preservation.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: Yes

27. Rights: No

28. Relevant Literature

Graphics and Appreciation

*This photo is taken and used by the permission of Ms.Ann Christine Eek from the University Musuem of Cultural Heritage, Oslo. I would like to express my appreciation for her gracious email and permission to use this photograph. I would also like to express my gratitude to Mr. Per B. Rekdal, the Department Head of the Musuem, for his kindness in making this possible.

**This photo is taken and used by the permission of Mr. Steve Ball, the Project Coordinator of the Cambridge Mpingo Project. I would like express my great appreciation for his generous and gracious assistance in the research process.

***Finally, thank you to the staff at Fauna Flora International and the SoundWood Project in San Fransico, for their willingness to help me in my research.


  1. Edward Miller, "Ebony on the Edge; Booming wood-carving industry has nearly wiped out prized tree in Kenya," San Francisco Chronicle Online [home page on-line]; available from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/09/18/MN13919.DTL; Internet; accessed February 2001.
  2. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online [home page on-line]; available from http://www.blackwoodconservation.org; Internet; accessed January 2001.
  3. Anthony B. Cunningham, "Ecological footprint of the wooden rhino: depletion of hardwoods for the carving trade in Kenya," People and Plants Online [home page on-line]; available from http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/peopleplants/regions/kenya/hardwood.htm; Internet; accessed January 2001.
  4. Diego Masera, "Carving out a future; how to sustain Kenyan wood carving," Micro Enterprises Support Programme, European Union; available from europa.eu.int/comm/development/publicat/courier/courier_182/en/en_042_ni.pdf; Internet; accessed March 2001.
  5. Cambridge Mpingo Project Online [home page on-line]; available from http://www.sbcomp.demon.co.uk/; Internet; accessed March 2001.
  6. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  7. Edward Miller, San Francisco Chronicle Online; African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  8. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  9. Anthony B. Cunningham, People and Plants Online.
  10. Dominic Walubengo, "Turning Kenya's Forests Around," The Nation; available from http://allafrica.com/stories/200104040484.html; Internet; accessed March 2001; Edward Miller; African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  11. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  12. Edward Miller, San Francisco Chronicle Online.
  13. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  14. Diego Masera; Anthony B. Cunningham, People and Plants Online; Edward Miller, San Francisco Chronicle Online.
  15. Edward Miller; African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  16. "Musical Instrument Materials and Endangered Species"; Internet; available from http://www.argonet.co.uk/artlute/mats.html; accessed February 2001.
  17. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.
  18. Cambridge Mpingo Project Online.
  19. Anthony B. Cunningham, People and Plants Online.
  20. Ibid.
  21. "Musical Instrument Materials and Endangered Species."
  22. Scientific American, "Unsound Reasoning; Are wind musicians loving tropical woods to death?" Scientific American Online [home page on-line]; available from http://www.scientificamerican.com/1998/0398issue/0398scicit3.html; Internet; accessed April 2001.
  23. African Blackwood Conservation Project Online.

Last Updated May 2001