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Published: 11/18/2009
Feds raid Gibson Guitar Co.
Agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service raided Gibson Guitar Co.'s manufacturing facility in Nashville, yesterday, to search the premises for evidence of illegal wood. The raid is something of a watershed, as it is the first of its kind to be carried out under the authority of an environmental law called the Lacey Act. For decades, the Lacey Act has barred the smuggling of wildlife into this country, but last year Congress expanded its legal protection to plants by criminalizing the possession of wood that has been harvested or traded in violation of any other country's environmental laws. An important aspect of the new legislation is that it does not allow for an "innocent owner" defense, meaning that illegal wood can be confiscated even if American buyers do not know of its black-market provenance. The Nashville Post reported that the federal agents seized wood, guitars, computers, and boxes of files from the Gibson facility. (Gibson has said that it is "fully cooperating" with the government.) If the investigation results in prosecution, the case is bound to be complex. Until the raid, Gibson's CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, was a board member of the Rainforest Alliance, and for several years now he has been urging members of his industry to use wood that is certified as sustainable. (About forty per cent of Gibson's guitars "contain some certified wood," according to the Forest Stewardship Council.) Federal agents suspect that Gibson imported illegal hardwood from Madagascar, where, in the past several months, political chaos has been accompanied by exceptional rates of environmental degradation. The species under investigation appears to be rosewood or ebony -- it is not clear which. Since January, an estimated thirty-five million dollars worth of Madagascan rosewood has been cut every month -- much of it by criminal syndicates and armed gangs working in national parks. Several weeks ago, Andry Rajoelina, a politician who seized power in Madagascar during a military coup this spring, issued a decree legalizing the sale of certain types of rosewood and ebony.