|Sawn bow-blanks of pernambuco. The number indicates the electronic density measurement; the blank at right has its initial triangular shaping of the head. Wax is applied to the end grain to prevent checking as the wood seasons.|
|In 1500, when Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral first made landfall, the Atlantic Forest - Mata Atlantica - covered 12% of the coastline of South America assigned to Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Portugal's limited resources, already strained by the exploitation of Africa and the Far East, didn't make full-scale colonization of the New World a high priority. The first settlers found little promise of El Dorado in the foreboding landscape. Nonetheless, they eventually found something of value in the impenetrable thicket - a dense, red dyewood called pau brazil ("pau" is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish "palo," meaning "stick" or "pole") or brazilwood (Caesalpina echinata Lam). The harvest of brazilwood from the Atlantic coast was inextricably linked to the development of the region and provided the unexplored territory, originally dubbed Terra de Vera Cruz, with its final name - Brazil. Merchants obtained concessions and began scattered settlements in order to facilitate export of the dyewood in increasingly large quantities to the European textile industry.
After the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes in the mid - 1800's, the market for brazilwood collapsed. However, it was accidentally found to be an unsurpassed wood for the manufacture of stringed instrument bows. With a specific gravity of 1.2, it is an extremely dense wood and, because of its hardness and high strength qualities, it has extraordinary resilience. To this day, it is traded as "pernambuco" (presumably because of once plentiful quantities in the coastal state of Pernambuco) and is the premier wood used to make professional violin bows. The heartwood of pau brazil is a bright, vivid orange-red color with characteristic variegated striped or marbleized figure that is sometimes accentuated by pin knots. Although lacquer finish will fix and preserve the beautiful color, with exposure the untreated wood will mature to a reddish-brown color. The grain is straight or interlocked with a compact, smooth texture and natural luster.
The conversion of the Atlantic rain forest to crop land and pasture took the better part of five centuries and today, it is restricted to less than 5% of its original area -less than 1% of the total area of Brazil. By the end of the eighteenth century, the once common brazilwood had become a rare species in the state of Pernambuco and soon thereafter, the rest of its natural habitat. By the end of the twentieth century,it has been virtually extirpated from its range and is currently registered on the IUCN World List of Threatened Trees. It is not, however, list on Appendix I or II of the Convention on the International ?Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and was not officially recognized as being in danger of extinction and protect under Brazilian law until 1990. Trade of pernambuco continues to contribute to deforestation of the Atlantic rain forest and its eventual disappearance as a commercial species.
The Atlantic Forest is widely considered by the scientific community to be in great peril of extinction and one of the top three conservation priorities in the world. The biodiversity of species and level of endemism area equal or higher than the Amazon and among the highest anywhere on earth. Most of the remaining native forest is badly degraded and unrelenting population forces and constant pressure by agricultural, extractive, and recreationally activities continue to be a major threat to the ecosystem. Recently, some notable work in conservation and sustainable management of the remaining woodstock has been conducted by England's Flora & Fauna International's "Soundwood:" Program. In addition to silvicultural practices and protection, the Soundwood project has undertaken a major research study that is looking for lesser known species such as ipe, also known as pau d'arco (Tabebuia serratifolia), and non-wood alternatives such as carbon graphite composites, that could help take the pressure off pernambuco.
Yurij Bihun, Director of ShelterwoodSystems, is a forest resources consultant, contibuting editor of the British-based Timer & Wood Products, and former Executive Director of the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP).
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