Environmentalists and Musicians Lobbying Against NAMM

Major environmental organizations have united with musicians in common cause as the NAMM Show in Anaheim commences. They are taking issue with the association's lobbying efforts in support of the RELIEF Act, which environmentalists argue would weaken regulations against illegal logging if passed. Social justice issues have sought attention at the annual music industry gathering before. Last year, musicians and activists gathered to protest in solidarity with Cort and Cort-tek workers in Korea, who toiled under exploitative conditions to make guitars for companies like Gibson and Fender. This year, attention is on the wood from the Earth's forests itself from which musical instruments are made.

The National Association of Music Merchants has made no secret of its support of the RELIEF Act. In an October 2011 press release, it reiterated its stance saying the proposed legislation would “clarify a broad federal law so that musical instrument manufacturers, retailers and resellers–among many others including musicians–would not be subject to penalties for unknowingly possessing illegal woods.” The federal law referenced is the Lacey Act which was enacted in 1900 and provides regulatory curbs against interstate and international trafficking of illegal wildlife and forest products. It was amended and strengthened in 2008. NAMM's official statement in support of the RELIEF ACT as a supposed corrective to overreach went on to echo Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper who says “In theory, anybody who travels outside the country or even across the state line with an old guitar right now would be in legal jeopardy.”

Twenty environmental groups, including Greenpeace, (which for full disclosure I'm a card carrying member of) delivered a letter to NAMM President and CEO Joe Lamond as well as Chairman Kevin Cranley urging the association to reconsider its stance, one in which perpetuates myths, they say. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the provisions of the Lacey Act, has said on record that “individual consumers and musicians are not the focus of any…law enforcement investigations.” Gibson Guitars, a major member of NAMM, however, has been. Company facilities were raided in August 2011 as ebony and rosewood materials and guitars were seized as evidence of suspected Lacy Act violations. Gibson had already been previously raided and is under investigation for allegedly importing illegal ebony from Madagascar.

Environmental organizations accuse NAMM of not informing its members of the significant rollbacks that the RELIEF Act would entail. They point to provisions that would make the penalty for first-time offenders a measly $250 fine, allow exemption loopholes for “non-solid” wood products that comprise half of all imports, and would let major manufacturers keep wood that has been proven to have been the result of illegal logging instead of making it subject to confiscation. All of this, opponents argue, amounts to a gutting of the Lacey Act, one of which would only serve to weaken increasingly effective protection of forests around the world.

Musicians, who NAMM warns as those who need to be concerned about existing penalties under the current Lacy Act, are organizing against what they see as a potential proliferation of illegal logging under the proposed RELIEF Act. Razia Said, an environmentally conscious singer from Madagascar, is currently in Anaheim speaking out with a petition that boasts around 40,000 signatures worldwide. “I've seen first hand this process in my native Madagascar, where timber gangs have raided our national parks for rare rosewood and ebony species, hunted endangered lemurs, and then export the wood to China, Europe and the United States for processing into musical instruments and other wood products,” she says in a written statement.

“The endangered species and indigenous people of the forest never hear the sounds of a Les Paul or Stratocaster, they hear only chainsaws.”

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