As I sit here waiting for my new guitar to arrive from Canada (an Eastwood replica of the Teisco TG-64), delayed by four to six weeks due to import restrictions on rosewood, it’s hard not to wonder at the sheer illogic of many of America’s trade laws. It’s not that they don’t sound reasonable on paper, but in practice, trade barriers present a nightmare of bureaucracy that harms consumers and businesses alike, while doing very little to actually accomplish their stated goals.
The rules in question fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a lengthy treaty designed to protect certain plant and animal products that may be in danger of destruction. Sounds like a noble goal, sure, but the impact on industries and individuals is far more cumbersome than you might imagine.
As I’m being personally inconvenienced at present, let’s talk about the treaty’s impact on the guitar industry. Most high-end guitars have fingerboards made of rosewood, and it’s also used for the bodies of many older instruments. It is popular due to its acoustic properties as well as its beautiful appearance. Brazilian rosewood is one of the species protected by CITES, but not all rosewood comes from Brazil. Nicaragua, Madagascar, and other countries produce the wood as well, and it can be difficult to distinguish one variety from another, especially if you’re just a simple guitarist or customs agent.
If you want to carry a guitar containing a protected variety of wood across national borders, you need to obtain three permits: a U.S. export permit and both export and import permits from the country you’re visiting. Each of these permits can take between two and four months to obtain.
Modern guitars do not contain Brazilian rosewood — it was banned from being harvested in 1992 — but companies interested in exporting guitars are still required to fill out CITES forms, which, as we have seen, can slow down commerce considerably. Moreover, individual musicians have to worry about overzealous border agents confiscating their instruments, particularly if they play vintage instruments, which are more likely to contain forbidden products.
Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no guarantee you’ll escape with your instrument. In typical government fashion, the customs agents are given wide latitude to seize items they believe violate the rules, without having to prove that they are correct. In fact, the burden of proof falls on the property owner to demonstrate that his instrument contains no forbidden rosewood before a court. If you don’t have the time, money, or wherewithal to accomplish this, you never get your property back.
Does all this paperwork actually succeed in preserving endangered species? It’s hard to see how it would. Other forbidden substances like ivory and tortoiseshell are typically only found in antiques, but even substances harvested decades ago can fall afoul of the law if they are repurposed for new uses. For example, a century-old chunk of ivory re-sculpted into a guitar part would be classified as “new” and get the entire instrument permanently confiscated, even though no elephants were harmed in finding a new use for an existing product.
One of the most baffling provisions in the regulations only allows the importing of protected substances through specified entry points. So, while you can fly your vintage rosewood guitar (with the proper forms of course) into New York’s JFK airport, you can’t fly it into Pittsburgh or Cleveland. When a guitar enthusiast called to ask a government representative why this was so, or what options he had if he accidentally brought a protected species to a non-authorized port, he was told “I don’t know.” Isn’t it nice to know our property rights are in such capable hands?
There is theoretically an exemption to CITES for personal instruments, but that appears to be based on who you ask. One guitarist had his instrument seized when he tried to ship it back to the manufacturer for repairs. The government alleged that the guitar contained white abalone, one of the prohibited substances. In fact, the alleged abalone was actually mother of pearl. Nevertheless, the musician didn’t get his instrument back.
The desire to protect endangered species is understandable, but piling on these layers of bureaucracy serves little purpose other than to hinder trade and endanger the property rights of private citizens. As for me, will I ever receive my funky new guitar, or will the Department of Agriculture delay it indefinitely over imaginary CITES infractions? Only time will tell.