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Lichtenberg, S., E. Huber-Sannwald, J. Reyes-AgŁero, D. Anhuf, and U. Nehren. 2022. Pau-brasil and string instrument bows telecouple nature, art, and heritage. Ecology and Society 27(1):32.

Pau-brasil and string instrument bows telecouple nature, art, and heritage

1Institute for Technology and Resources Management in the Tropics and Subtropics (ITT), TH-Köln - University of Applied Sciences, Köln, Germany, 2Department of Geography, University of Passau, Passau, Germany, 3Division of Environmental Sciences, Instituto Potosino de Investigación Científica y Technológica, A.C. (IPICYT), San Luis Potosí­, SLP, Mexico, 4Instituto de Investigación de Zonas Desérticas, Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, San Luis Potosí, SLP, Mexico


The wood of the pau-brasil tree (Paubrasilia echinata Lam., formerly Caesalpinia echinata Lam.) is used worldwide as raw material for the construction of high-quality bows for string instruments. Alternative tree species are rarely accepted by professional musicians, or by bow and violin makers. Historical overexploitation of this endemic species in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome (Mata Atlântica), a global biodiversity hotpot including UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites, and illegal trade have caused drastic declines in its natural abundance. Pau-brasil is now classified as an endangered species and listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Traditional bow-making craftsmanship, an intangible cultural heritage, depends heavily on the high-quality pau-brasil wood. This complex situation presents unprecedented cross-continental transdisciplinary challenges. In order to target the protection of this coupled natural/cultural heritage, this work frames and examines the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system as a complex telecoupled system linked by cultural ecosystem services provided by the pau-brasil, as well as the relationships and cultural exchanges among key actors. Using historical trajectory analysis, we identify past, present, and potential future trigger events, key drivers, and key system variables that explain the dynamics, feedback, and resilience of this complex multi-dimensional system. Furthermore, with a cross-scale social and power relations analysis, we examine the level of dependencies and influences of contemporary key actors on the ecosystem services provided by the pau-brasil and their interconnections, in order to ultimately identify their level of disadvantage regarding the pau-brasil. Finally, we discuss the potential of this novel cultural-ecological system approach to (i) interlink science, nature, and art, (ii) reconcile the currently competing protection aims of natural and cultural heritage elements, and (iii) provide future trajectories regarding the resilience and sustainable development of this pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system. We advocate for this novel path forward toward sustainable transformation of complex cultural-ecological systems urgently needed to navigate our increasingly telecoupled world.
Key words: bow-making; brazilwood; cultural-ecological system; ecosystem services; intangible cultural heritage; Paubrasilia echinata Lam.; pernambuco wood; social-ecological system


For more than 200 years, high-quality string instrument bows have been crafted in Europe from the wood of the pau-brasil tree (Paubrasilia echinata Lam.). This endangered tree species is endemic to the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) biome in Brazil, which is highly fragmented due to historical overexploitation and modern infrastructure development (Dean 1996, Rezende et al. 2018). Decreased population size, conservation measures in the Mata Atlântica biome, and simultaneous trade restrictions on the endangered tree species pau-brasil (CITES 2007) have inevitably led to limited availability of the wood as essential raw material for the construction of high-quality string instrument bows, which directly affects traditional bow-making craftsmanship in Europe (HCA 2021) and classical music as a whole (Rymer 2007). Hence, the interconnection between the ecosystem and natural resource of pau-brasil in the Mata Atlântica and the European bow-making tradition, as well as classical music, forms a historical telecoupled culture-centered social-ecological system or cultural-ecological system.

Crafting musical instruments is the process of transforming raw materials, extracted primarily and traditionally from wild populations of intact ecosystems, into objects of art for making music—a historically rooted interconnection between nature, art, and heritage elements. Cultural and natural heritage concepts consider the historical, current, and future importance (Lowenthal 2005) of certain cultural traditions or artefacts and natural environments (Richards et al. 2020) or cultural landscapes (Taylor and Lennon 2011), respectively with outstanding (tangible or intangible) universal value and exceptional significance for humanity (see heritage definitions in Table A1.1), with or without official declaration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). However, the official recognition of heritage is important for achieving place-based conservation and sustainable development (UNESCO 2019b). UNESCO has been declaring the world’s material, cultural, and natural heritage sites and elements since 1975; in 2006, the category of intangible cultural heritage was included. Although the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage does not explicitly include music, approximately 70% of the list is directly or indirectly related to music (Pinto 2018) and musical instruments.

Historically rooted interconnections between culture and nature are acknowledged in the form of biocultural heritage (Lindholm and Ekblom 2019). Biocultural diversity, assets, and heritage (see definitions in Table A1.1) refer to the linkage between people and nature or human cultural and biological diversity (Bridgewater and Rotherham 2019). Biocultural approaches within sustainability science incorporate a social-ecological system’s understanding (Merçon et al. 2019). However, these concepts are limited to place-based contexts (Bridgewater and Rotherham 2019, Hanspach et al. 2020). European colonization initiated cross-continental relationships between distant territories, which in the case of instrument making, are ultimately the reason why certain parts of musical instruments from the Global North are traditionally made from tropical wood from the Global South. Since colonial times, these cross-scale social, commercial, and power relations have increasingly impacted the availability and use of certain ecosystem goods and services, such as pau-brasil wood for bow making. Understanding these social-ecological linkages and interdependencies across scales is a prerequisite for identifying the levels of disadvantages of key actor groups and achieving distributional and procedural equity with respect to ecosystem services (Martín-López et al. 2019), which ultimately leads to a transformation toward fair, equitable, and sustainable development that takes all affected actors into account.

If stringed instruments and their bows are grouped together in one category, 10% of them are made from tropical wood (Elsasser et al. 2011), while if one considers only modern string instrument bows, nearly all materials originate from the tropics. To our knowledge, currently none of the existing analytical frameworks permit the examination of cross-continental interlinkages among ecosystems, species, actors, culture, and art. We propose a telecoupled cultural-ecological systems (CESs) approach inspired by the telecoupled social-ecological systems framework of Liu et al. (2013), but with a focus on culture. To address the multidimensional and cross-scale roles of the pau-brasil tree species in delivering goods, services, and additional contributions, we adopted nature’s contributions to people (NCPS) (Pascual et al. 2017, Díaz et al. 2018) and ecosystem services (ESs) (MEA 2005) as complementary frameworks, in line with Pires et al. (2020). Consequently, we call for a new inclusive concept of cultural ecosystem services that encompasses both non-material (cultural) and material services. Further, we advocate for the broadening of the established ecosystem services framework and introduce the concept of “provisioning-cultural services”. This addition is consistent with and supports the separation into tangible and intangible cultural heritage, thus allowing for a coherent analysis of cultural-ecological systems that integrate the NCP and ES frameworks and cultural and natural heritage (see definitions in Table A1.1). This scope enables an overarching analysis of the complex historical, cultural-ecological, telecoupled relations between humans and nature, as well as cross-scale power relationships that connect local ecosystems with culture and art, in the context of system-defining key ecological and cultural elements and key actors (Fig. 1, Table A2.1).

In this exploratory research study, we analyzed the interrelations between the cultural-ecological subsystem A (CES-A), the Brazilian Mata Atlântica with the pau-brasil tree as a key ecological element, and the cultural-ecological subsystem B (CES-B) with European traditional bow making (cultural practice), classical music (cultural expression), and string instrument bows (cultural objects) as key cultural elements, including the contemporary key actors of both subsystems (Fig. 1). The goal was to disentangle and unveil the complexity of this telecoupled pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system (PB-CES) and its sources of resilience in order to propose pathways for sustainable development and the protection of this telecoupled cultural-ecological system. The extraordinary natural and cultural values of the subsystems are evidenced by UNESCO’s nominations of Mata Atlântica reserves as Natural World Heritage Sites (1999, 2001, 2019; see Table 1), and independently “Traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona” in Italy as an intangible cultural heritage (in 2012), the latter being closely linked to traditional craftsmanship of string instrument bows. Cross-continental solutions are needed in order to safeguard these interlinked natural and cultural heritage elements and to avoid the crossing of “cultural-ecological tipping points” (see definition in Table A1.1). Maintaining the integrity of traditional bow making in Europe, embedded in the CES-B, and the high-quality pau-brasil wood from the Mata Atlântica, as part of the CES-A, contributes to the resilience of this telecoupled cultural-ecological system (Fig. 1).

Sustainable solutions require a thorough understanding of the dynamics of key NCPs/ESs provided by the pau-brasil tree, and the drivers of the interconnections and feedback among classical music and the violin- and bow-making tradition, as well as the natural environments and socio-political and economic contexts locally and across continents. The importance of species-specific contributions to NCPs/ESs has been highlighted in the literature (Luck et al. 2009); e.g., as an indicator (Abualhagag and Valánszki 2020) or symbolic species (Schirpke et al. 2018), or as culturally defined keystone species (Cristancho and Vining 2004), cultural keystone species (Garibaldi and Turner 2004), or social-ecological keystone species (Winter et al. 2018). Therefore, we focus on key NCPs/ESs provided by pau-brasil trees growing in natural Mata Atlântica ecosystems and their benefits to humans in a global and historical context, and their role in the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system, considering the contemporary social and power relations of key actors. This research is transdisciplinary (Brandt et al. 2013) in that it includes knowledge, worldviews, and perspectives of various stakeholders and key actors based on inquiry through interviews and surveys. The synergistic value of interweaving different knowledge systems (local knowledge of farmers, woodcutters, and wood dealers in the Mata Atlântica, traditional craftsmanship knowledge, interdisciplinary social-ecological knowledge, technical knowledge of wood sciences, artistic knowledge of musicians regarding requirements for string instrument bows) enriches the overall picture (Tengö et al. 2014) and ultimately permits an integrated assessment of complex telecoupled cultural-ecological systems—in our case, of the PB-CES.

With the telecoupled cultural-ecological systems approach (Fig. 1), we address the following research questions considering the Mata Atlântica, Europe, and global scale:

  1. How have complex system dynamics shaped the integrity and resilience of the telecoupled pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system along its historical trajectory, considering the evolution of classical music, violin and bow making, transformation of the natural environment, and changes in socio-political and economic contexts?
  2. How do contemporary cross-scale social and power relations among key actors and stakeholders of the PB-CES influence the delivery of pau-brasil’s NCPs/ESs and consequently human well-being?

Based on our findings, we discuss possible future trajectories with respect to the resilience and sustainable development of the PB-CES. Overall, this study aims to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the integrity, resilience, and sustainable development of the PB-CES. To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies to indicate that complex sustainability challenges require not only novel research approaches but also new telecoupled, transdisciplinary perspectives and thus frameworks to recognize and scrutinize such unexpected yet strong linkages between nature and art across continents.


Telecoupled cultural-ecological systems analysis

The in-depth PB-CES analysis (Fig. 2) identifies key intercontinental relations between (i) the Mata Atlântica in Brazil as natural heritage (Fig. 1, CES-A) with its endemic pau-brasil tree (Fig. 1, key ecological element), and (ii) traditional bow-making craftsmanship and classical music (Fig. 1, key cultural elements) in Europe as intangible cultural heritage (Fig. 1, CES-B). The analysis of the different data sources was an interconnected iterative process that served to answer both research questions (Fig. 3).

Historical trajectory analysis

The temporal analysis of the origin and development of the PB-CES began shortly before the European conquest of Brazil (1500) and continues today; it encompasses three spatial scales: (i) the Mata Atlântica biome as the habitat of the pau-brasil (Fig. 1, CES-A), (ii) Europe as the cradle of classical music and traditional bow-making craftsmanship (Fig. 1, CES-B), and (iii) the global scale with its exogenous controls and drivers acting on the PB-CES. We simultaneously explored the historical development of four thematically interrelated dimensions at three defined scales of the PB-CES: (a) classical music, (b) traditional violin and bow making, and (c) modification of the natural environment through land use and extraction of natural resources, all in the context of changing (d) socio-political and economic contexts (Fig. 4). This multi-layered analysis served to identify (A) the key ecological elements of the CES-A (Fig. 1), (B) the key cultural elements of the CES-B (Fig. 1), (C) the system boundaries, and (D) PB-CES properties, such as the key trigger events, drivers, system variables, and feedback that explain the stability of system states, thresholds, and regime shifts of the PB-CES (Figs. 2, 3). The information base for this analysis came from (1) a narrative literature review (Table A3.1), (2) semi-structured interviews with key actors and experts (Tables A4.1, A4.2), (3) an international online survey (Table A5.1), and (4) field visits to pau-brasil plantations (Figs. 2, 3; Table 2).

Cross-scale social and power relations analysis

To understand potential (inter)dependencies, power asymmetries, and interconnections of key actor groups (agents, sensu Liu et al. 2013) regarding NCP/ES flows of pau-brasil (Fig. 5) over the last 30 years at three spatial scales—Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A), Europe (Fig. 1, CES-B), and internationally—our data acquisition encompassed (1) semi-structured interviews (Appendix 4) based on the snowball sampling technique (Coleman 1958); (2) a narrative (non-systematic) literature review (Table A3.2) (Ferrari 2015), and (3) personal observations of workshop participants (Table 2). Participant observation is a common research method in sociology; according to Becker and Geer (1957) it is “the most complete form of the sociological datum,” especially suited to assess relationships between actors, and an important tool for assessing key actors’ relationships (Martín-López et al. 2019). The comprehensive “cross-scale influence-dependence framework” (Martín-López et al. 2019) allowed us to determine (i) contemporary (1990–2020) levels of dependencies of key actors on the NCPs/ESs of pau-brasil for their livelihoods in the Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A), Europe (Fig. 1, CES-B), and internationally, and/or (ii) related values of key actors’ influences on decision-making processes regarding the management of pau-brasil’s NCPs/ESs, and (iii) cross-scale interactions between key actor groups (Fig. 6). Accordingly, we followed steps (a) to (d) in Table 3 and applied the criteria described in our interconnected data analysis (Fig. 3). By combining the dependency and influence levels of the key actor groups, we created dependency-influence matrices (Fig. 7) for the Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A), Europe (Fig. 1, CES-B), and global scale (Appendix 6). With these depictions, we identified the level of disadvantages of each actor group with respect to the losses of pau-brasil’s NCPs/ESs.


Historical trajectory of the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system

We conceptualized the system dynamics of the PB-CES through five regimes (between the end of the 15th century and the present), a series of key trigger events (T1–T5), drivers (D1–D13), key system variables (S1–S15), and feedback types (F1–F13) (Table 4), considering important cross-scale interactions (temporal, spatial, and dimensional) (Fig. 4). To facilitate transdisciplinary accessibility, we provide a detailed description of the historical trajectory of the PB-CES in Appendix 7.

Pre-colonial ecocultural system in the Mata Atlântica and social-ecological system within Europe (before 1500)

The pre-colonial Mata Atlântica social-ecological systems can be described as a resilient ecocultural system (see definition in Table A1.1), considering that the land use of the Tupí and Guarani tribes was based mainly on shifting cultivation, hunting, and fishing, which was unlikely to lead to significant land degradation under low population pressure (Nehren 2011), thus characterizing a sustainable social-ecological regime (Table 4-F1). In contrast, the social-ecological system in Europe was close to an ecological threshold, when considering Moore’s (2002) noted overexploitation of natural resources from a systems perspective (Table 4-D1, S1, F2). Portuguese colonization of Brazil (trigger T1; Table 4-T1; Fig. 4-T1) caused the crossing of several thresholds, such as geographical distance, Indigenous autonomy, and the sustainable use of the Mata Atântica ecosystem, giving rise to the new cross-continental social-ecological system.

Pau-brasil exploitation for dyes (1500 to ~1800)

Upon the European discovery of Brazil, the exploitation of pau-brasil wood (Table 4-D2) began. Its high brazilin concentration, a red pigment used as textile dye, soon replaced the pigment extracted from the Asian Caesalpinia sappan L. (Aguiar and Pinho 2007). This caused severe reductions and ecological degradation of the Mata Atlântica biome (Table 4-S3) (Dean 1996, Galindo-Leal and Câmara 2005, Nehren et al. 2013). In the 16th century alone, approximately 6000 km2 were destroyed (Dean 1996). The pau-brasil’s growing economic importance prompted the Portuguese to name their colony “Terra do Brasil” (Rocha et al. 2007). Between 1500 and 1800, 466,518 pau-brasil trees (Fig. 1, key ecological element) were exported to Europe (Rocha 2008). Local communities (often as slaves), especially the Tupí tribe, were involved in the Portuguese pau-brasil trade (Dean 1996); however, they also started clandestine trading with France (Dean 1996, Montaigne 2000). Around 1500, the tradition of violin making (slow key cultural system variable; Table 4-S3) developed in Europe (Schebeck 1877). Increasing accessibility to music played by string instruments (slow key cultural system variable) to the European general public (Table 4-D3) required progress and innovation (Table 4-S4) in the construction of musical instruments (Table 4-F5; Fig. 4-T2), marking a new cultural threshold in violin making, internally driven by techno-cultural advances: the invention of “modern violin bows,” which gave rise to the telecoupled PB-CES (Fig. 1).

The invention of the “modern violin bow” gives rise to the telecoupled pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system (~1800 to ~1900)

At the end of the 18th century, bow maker François Xavier Tourte (1747–1835) encountered pau-brasil wood in Paris, an important center of textile dyeing; he innovated the construction of string instrument bows (trigger T2; Fig. 1, CES-B, key cultural element, cultural practices; Table 4-T2; Fig. 4-T2). Soon the new “modern violin bow” model with its concave-shaped stick revolutionized the construction of violin bows; these high-quality bows (Fig. 1, CES-B, cultural object) were made exclusively of pau-brasil wood (see wood characteristics for string instrument bows in Table 1; Fig 1, key ecological element of CES-A, material value, material NCP/provisioning-cultural service) (Baines 1961, Longui et al. 2010). The craft quickly became established throughout Europe (Fig.1, CES-B, key cultural element, cultural practices), creating the basis for the telecoupled PB-CES. However, the convex-shaped baroque bows, which until then had been constructed from native European wood and other tropical species by violin makers, were never fully replaced (Baines 1961, Longui et al. 2010, Brémaud and Poidevin 2013). In the 18th century, the expansion of coffee plantations caused a substantial reduction of the Mata Atlântica. However, pau-brasil exploitation dropped drastically to only 49,727 trees during that century (Rocha 2008), which released pressure on the reduced pau-brasil populations (key ecological system variable, Table 4-S7). This was due to the discovery of organic synthetic dyes (aniline colors) (trigger T3, Table 4-T3; Fig. 4-T3) in 1856, which induced first an alternative system state, and then around 1900, a regime shift of the PB-CES to “the deceptive calm and a flourishing of bow making” upon the complete replacement of natural dyes (Michaelson 1993).

The deceptive calm and flourishing of bow making (~1900 to 1998)

Selective cutting of pau-brasil from natural forests addressed the European wood demand by bow makers, but during the two World Wars, European-wide trade was heavily reduced. Expanding urbanization along the Brazilian coast triggered additional severe loss and degradation of the Mata Atlântica (Freitas et al. 2010). Since 1951, a company specializing in precious wood exportation in Guarana, Espírito Santo, has been dominating the trade of pau-brasil wood for string instrument bows. The company, providing wood and bows to the international market, ensured income for local community members, who worked as woodcutters and later, after the expansion to a local bow factory, as its employees. In 1978, pau-brasil was declared Brazil’s national tree due to its historical and emblematic importance for the country (Fig. 1, CES-A, key ecological element, relational value) (Dapson and Bain 2015). In the late 20th century, low-cost, low-quality Chinese mass production of carbon fiber bows (Table 4-D8) for non-professionals replaced the low-cost bows made of the Brazilian Manilkara bidentata, which put increasing pressure on traditional bow makers (Table 4-S9) (Moro 2019) but not on pau-brasil populations. However, vast devastated forest areas, ongoing exploitation of the Mata Atlântica as already described, and thus severe losses of pau-brasil populations led to the national listing of pau-brasil as an endangered species in 1992 (IBAMA 1992, revised 2013). By 1998, pau-brasil was included on the IUCN Red List as an endangered species (trigger T4; Fig. 1, exogenous control; Table 4-T4; Fig. 4-T4) (Varty 1998).

Control of the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system by intergovernmental protection and trade regulations (1998 to present day)

The inclusion of pau-brasil on Red Lists was absolutely necessary from a conservation perspective; however, this has caused a crisis (regime shift) for traditional bow makers, whose livelihoods depend on pau-brasil wood. Red Lists guide international trade regulations. Consequently, in 2000, highly concerned bow makers formed the NGO International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI) in Paris (Table 4-F10) with multiple objectives: to foster the conservation of pau-brasil, and to implement pau-brasil plantation projects for future commercial use and thereby prevent its listing in CITES. Until today, however, wood quality of planted trees compared to high-quality wood from trees in natural habitats has been seriously questioned, as have ambiguous regulations for their commercial use. Since unregulated trade could not be halted, pau-brasil made it into CITES’s Appendix II in 2007 (trigger T5; Fig. 4-T5, exogenous control; Table 4-T5), yet the IPCI, musicians, and instrument makers managed to make finished string instrument bows exempt (CITES 2007, Waleson 2007). Since then, commercial trade has been requiring authorization for pau-brasil wood by the exporting and importing country. This induced drastic changes in the PB-CES, driven by strict ecological conservation mechanisms.

Cross-scale social relations and power relations among key actors of the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system

Pau-brasil (Fig. 1, key ecological element of CES-A) provides 10 NCPs and ecosystem services with clear benefits for 11 current actor groups, eight of which are key actor groups of the PB-CES (Fig. 5; Table A6.1). For Brazilians, identity and sense-of-place are crucial non-material NCPs connected to pau-brasil, while in Europe, pau-brasil wood is a material NCP/provisioning-cultural service and thus key for bow-making craftsmanship (Fig. 1, key cultural element of CES-B) and human well-being. Pau-brasil is a cultural keystone species (see definition in Table A1.1) by virtue of its multifunctional local and distant cultural roles and irreplaceable functions in providing material, and especially for maintaining the system’s integrity as predominant non-material NCPs/ESs (Fig. 5) within the PB-CES in the Mata Atlântica of Brazil (Fig. 1, CES-A) and in Europe (Fig. 1, CES-B). The key actor groups that depend directly on one or more of the identified NCPs/ESs (Fig. 1, key actor groups linked to the key cultural elements in CES-A, CES-B, and globally; Fig. 6; Table A6.2) are all institutionalized and formally organized at the European (Fig. 1, CES-B) and global scales. Only in the Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A), violin and bow makers, musicians, and residents are not institutionalized or organized, which explains their small influence on the management of the NCPs/ESs of the pau-brasil tree (Fig. 6). Traditional bow makers are a numerically small actor group (worldwide >200) (Pfeifer 2002, Rymer 2004), whose livelihoods are mostly dependent on the pau-brasil tree (Level 3; Fig. 7). At the same time, they can be declared a “keystone” actor group that preserves traditional bow-making craftsmanship. Most farmers/plantation owners and residents of the Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A) appear to be unaware of their direct and indirect dependencies on the NCPs/ESs of pau-brasil for their well-being (Level 2, Fig. 7). Policy-makers show low dependencies at all scales (Level 1, Fig. 7), but exhibit the highest levels of influence, especially internationally and in the Mata Atlântica region (Level 3; Fig. 7). They are responsible for far-reaching legislative decisions, such as the CITES listing, laws regarding pau-brasil, and the UNESCO listings (see legal framework Table A6.4).

Cross-scale interconnections improve the level of influence for certain actor groups. For example, bow makers, musicians, and violin makers increased their level of influence (e.g., triggering the exclusion of finished bows from the CITES regulations in 2007) by strengthening the interconnections between existing formal associations (e.g., Entente Internationale des Maîtres Luthiers et Archetiers d’Art and European associations of these professions) and by founding new associations that focus on endangered species used for musical instruments (IPCI in 2000, and the International Alliance of Violin and Bow Makers for Endangered Species in 2018).

The complete dependence of bow makers on a single endangered species, coupled with their limited-to-moderate level of influence on (i) decision-making regarding the management of the NCPs/ESs of pau-brasil, and consequently (ii) accessibility to high-quality wood makes them the most disadvantaged actor group in this PB-CES at all scales (Mata Atlântica, Fig. 1, CES-A, Europe, Fig. 1, CES-B, international) (Fig. 7). Awakening the interest of the “oblivious” yet dependent actor groups in the Mata Atlântica (Fig. 1, CES-A) (farmers, plantation owners, Mata Atlântica residents) and increasing their stake in the PB-CES might be one step forward to overcoming historical patterns of exploitation and inequality, and toward a sustainable, participatory, and equitable transformation process. Therefore, striving for equal access to the NCPs/ESs of pau-brasil and for participatory decision-making processes will be crucial for long-term sustainable conservation strategies to preserve the natural and cultural heritage elements.


Cultural-ecological systems elucidate the important role of culture resulting from and shaped by peoples’ values and appreciation of nature and culture within social-ecological systems, in this case, the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system. Considering all elements of a social-ecological system, our framework (Fig. 1) presents a novel opportunity to analytically link and potentially protect nature, art, and culture, as well as natural and cultural heritage elements. Telecoupled cultural-ecological systems connect (i) distant geographic regions through telecoupling (Liu et al. 2013) and ultimately metacoupling (see definition in Table A1.1) (Liu 2017), and (ii) culturally relevant material and non-material NCPs/cultural ecosystem services (Chan et al. 2012, Fish et al. 2016) based on people’s values of nature (Kenter 2018) that define “nature’s contributions to people” (Pascual et al. 2017, Díaz et al. 2018)(Fig. 1) under the consideration of (iii) social and power relations of key actors that shape the coupledness of the system and the impacts on these NCPs/ESs. In a telecoupled cultural-ecological system approach, the focus is on culture, the specification and division of flows in culturally relevant NCPs/ESs and cross-continental cultural exchanges and influences linked to key actor relationships that trace back to the underlying values of culture and nature (cultural causes) for people (Pascual et al. 2017). The value-based concept of NCPs/ESs includes intrinsic, and also importantly relational, and instrumental values, as proposed in our conceptual framework, which adds an urgently needed holistic scope to the NCP/ES concept (Christie et al. 2019) that highlights the role of relational values for sustainable societal and cultural transformations. In this regard, our process-oriented classification of cultural elements (cultural practice, cultural object/good, cultural expression) strongly supports this notion and allows for a clear understanding of the tightly interlinked tangible and intangible aspects of intangible cultural heritage and its five domains (UNESCO 2018): (a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals, and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and (e) traditional craftsmanship. In the search for pathways to produce sustainable string instrument bows, a metacoupling approach where a set of two or more coupled systems interact internally and with neighboring system(s) as well as with geographically distant systems (Liu 2017) could open new research potential. Cultural-ecological systems, such as our results for the telecoupled PB-CES, could be placed in a broader context; e.g., for the materials of musical instruments and their individual parts made from materials originating from a set of local, neighboring, and distant regions.

To gain an integrative perspective of system dynamics, Dearing et al. (2010) called for long-term observations (multidecadal or even multicentennial timescales) of coupled land systems (human–environment systems). Cultural-ecological systems with their focus on culture, art, traditions, and heritage, especially require such long-term analyses with a (tele)coupled perspective on land systems, land use, and particularly, land functions (Verburg et al. 2009). Our historical trajectory analysis shows that the invention of the “modern violin bow” was a key trigger event in the cultural dimension that induced a regime shift and gave rise to the PB-CES. It emerged from the increasing coupledness between environment and culture. However, around 1800, the European environment encompassed, in addition to the surrounding European ecosystem, the supply of exotic materials from geographically distant ecosystems, which suggests that globalization was already in full swing at that time (Nederveen Pieterse 2012). Therefore, incorporating and focusing on the role of material and non-material NCPs/cultural ecosystem services locally and especially across distant regions as well as on traditional knowledge and cultural needs, as mentioned by Colloff et al. (2020), is paramount to understanding system dynamics in order to create and find novel options for transformative adaptation and to prevent maladaptation. In this particular study, pau-brasil’s delivery of diverse material and non-material NCPs makes it a cultural keystone species (Platten and Henfrey 2009) (definition in Table A1.1). Pau-brasil provides diverse cultural ecosystem services, and material and non-material NCPs (Fig. 5). Especially, its wood (material NCP/provisioning-cultural service) must undergo a complex production chain to unfold its full cultural service potential. First, it must be transformed by highly specialized traditional knowledge (intangible cultural heritage) so that another set of actor groups may then implement and develop (artistic) knowledge and skills (intangible cultural heritage) in order to generate the final cultural service performed by professionals (musicians, educators) in order for the end users to then experience non-material cultural benefits through listening to music (Fig. 1, cultural expression).

The cross-scale social actor analysis (Martín-López et al. 2019) bridges natural resource management (dependence-influence matrix) with ES research and political ecology (access and power relations, distributional and procedural equity) and thereby complements the telecoupling systems approach (Liu et al. 2013, Liu 2017) with inter-regional flows of goods and services (NCPs/ESs). Our conceptual framework (Fig. 1) merges the approaches of Liu et al. (2013) and Martín-López et al. (2019) and provides a broad application for complex systems analysis, making it possible to explore the still unaccounted for, yet critically important linkages between natural and cultural heritage elements, ecosystems, and art through interconnected material and non-material NCPs/ESs that are key cultural and ecological elements of telecoupled cultural-ecological systems (e.g., African blackwood as an example of a key ecological element of a telecoupled cultural-ecological system [Table A2.1], a flagship species [Ball 2004] used in European woodwind instrument-making [example of a key cultural element of a telecoupled cultural-ecological system; Table A2.1] [Nakai et al. 2019], and Tanzanian carving tradition [example of a key cultural element of a telecoupled cultural-ecological system; Table A2.1] [Kingdon 2005]). This novel approach implies the active inclusion and scrutiny of justice aspects of cultural-ecological systems and opens the perspective regarding their role in peace and a fair, just, and sustainably coexisting society. The longing for epistemic justice (Fricker 2013) and proper recognition of injustices both call for an epistemological break (Santos 2016). A suitable framework for future telecoupled cultural-ecological system analysis could be social-ecological justice, as defined by Gunnarsson-Östling and Svenfelt (2018), to support decision-making, policy, and planning. This goes beyond environmental justice by additionally considering local and distant environmental support systems (synonymous with local and distant ecosystem services and NCPs in general, in this study of the CES-A and CES-B) and incorporating intra- and inter-generational justice, visible and non-apparent dependence on ecosystems (here, material and non-material NCPs/provisioning, provisioning-cultural, and cultural services within the CES-A and CES-B), environmental benefits, and burdens (Gunnarsson-Östling and Svenfelt 2018).

Music as a manifestation of culture and art is ephemeral and intangible in its interpretation and directly reliant on the practice and skills of the producer (Pinto 2014), potentially key actors of cultural-ecological systems. At the same time, music and musicians depend on musical instruments (Zhang 2012), which are often made of natural materials, especially wood. Compared to our approach, Wilson and Topham’s (2004) research took a different perspective; they chose historical string instruments as a source of records and reference data for the history of European climate, and analyzed the instrument wood with dendrochronological methods. Ecological knowledge on growth conditions is fundamental in the selection of precious resonance wood, which is seminal for acoustically extraordinary musical instruments (Trifkovic 2016). By analyzing wood density and shrinkage range as quality indicators for pau-brasil wood, Marques et al. (2012) discovered that pau-brasil wood quality of wild and planted trees was similar. In contrast, Macedo et al. (2019) found that wild and planted pau-brasil trees exhibited different growth patterns. Finally, based on the wood analysis of historical French bows, a favorable place for good bow wood and plantations would be northeastern Brazil (Macedo et al. 2020). Further transdisciplinary and participatory research among agronomists; ecologists; environmental, forest, and wood scientists; bow makers; and musicians is urgently needed in order to clarify the specific environmental characteristics required to produce high-quality resonance wood of pau-brasil for string instrument bows, and to examine under what environmental conditions wood from pau-brasil plantations can compete with wood from virgin forests.

Competing protection aims of natural and cultural heritage

Generally, linking the protection of natural and cultural heritage is not a competition per se. For example, UNESCO considers the simultaneous local protection of natural and cultural heritage in the form of “cultural landscapes” (since 1992) and “mixed heritage” (Taylor and Lennon 2011). These concepts definitely do justice to the essential features of ecosystems and culture by not being strictly confined to administrative or political borders and recognizing place-based interconnections. However, linkages of both categories across geographically distinct regions lack recognition. Considering the relevance of the international network of violin makers to conserve the traditional knowledge of violin craftsmanship (Magnani 2014), we question whether the preservation can and should be geographically limited to Cremona, Italy. The results of our analysis suggest that UNESCO’s existing frameworks and concepts need to evolve beyond their current understanding to do justice to the complexity of our globalized world by recognizing that an intangible cultural heritage may stand in an inseparable, telecoupled relationship with geographically distant natural resources and natural heritage elements. The introduction by UNESCO of a new category, “Telecoupled interwoven heritage”, could strengthen the mutual appreciation and responsibility of the countries involved (here, European countries and Brazil with the Mata Atlântica) for the interdependent conservation of both kinds of heritage elements. This could qualify UNESCO to participate as an entirely new and independent body in the CITES conferences, and advise on the negotiation of trade regulations to equally conserve affected natural and intangible cultural heritage elements, thus transforming the current pathways for their perseverance. Such a holistic approach could pave the way for effective safeguarding strategies that consider the co-dependency of telecoupled cultural and natural heritage elements. With regard to musical instruments, our results are in line with those of Trifkovic (2016), who confirmed that by protecting natural forests, the production of high-quality resonance wood is guaranteed; this is an effective strategy to simultaneously sustain cultural and natural heritage elements.

Possible future trajectories of the pau-brasil/bow-making cultural-ecological system

In line with Dearing et al. (2010), we wish to highlight the importance of historical long-term analysis of the dynamics of coupled human–environment systems for anticipating future scenarios, considering land use change and cultural dynamics. Therefore, our transdisciplinary analysis, especially the historical trajectory of the PB-CES, provides a crucial basis for outlining two possible future trajectories for the PB-CES (Table 5, Fig. 8). Preserving the remaining pau-brasil populations while sustaining traditional bow-making craftsmanship could make it possible to maintain or enhance the cultural-ecological resilience of our PB-CES (optimistic win-win scenario). This could be achieved by simultaneously increasing rehabilitation efforts in natural forests and restoration of secondary forests in protected areas that include pau-brasil populations. Other possible measures include planting pau-brasil in agroforestry systems and mixed-tree commercial plantations, taking into account local environmental legislation, legal registration procedures, and appropriate management plans (Lichtenberg et al. 2019).

The continuous search for ecologically compatible material alternatives, considering production, life cycle, and recycling aspects, as well as their improvement in physical and acoustical requirements, could be a complementary strategy to diversify material choices, thereby reducing the pressure on pau-brasil and increasing the resilience of the PB-CES. The use of alternative wood species could be another option, but without further restrictions, those species also risk becoming threatened (Bennett 2016), which has also been described as a process of “serial over-exploitation” in the context of carving traditions (Cunningham et al. 2005). Certifications or supply chain laws that guarantee responsible and ecologically sustainable harvesting of wood for musical instruments and just and fair social trade standards appear to be crucial and inevitable for the preservation of the PB-CES in the long term and in order to increase its resilience. From a cultural and living intangible cultural heritage perspective—i.e., the craftsmanship of string instrument bows—novel offers for bow-making apprenticeships are needed that incorporate both education on pau-brasil’s ecological situation and its cultural-ecological role, and sustainable and responsible use of pau-brasil to support the education of young bow makers.

However, due to illegal trade, decimated pau-brasil populations, and a decreasing number of young bow makers, the current PB-CES system regime is highly unstable, so there is concern that cultural-ecological tipping points may (soon) be crossed, causing an irreversible regime shift with unprecedented losses of key elements; e.g., the disappearance of bow-making craftsmanship, or the extinction of pau-brasil (pessimistic lose-win scenario). As stated by Huber-Sannwald et al. (2012), foreseeable crises and collapses require abilities to induce transformational processes that open opportunities for alternative long-term sustainable solutions (Walker and Meyers 2004, Folke et al. 2005). In the case of the PB-CES, this calls for innovative transformation, where changes in action and behavior prevent the crossing of any of the ecological, socio-cultural, or cultural-ecological tipping points.


Pau-brasil wood represents the linkage between the world natural heritage of the Mata Atlântica in Brazil and the intangible cultural heritage of traditional bow making in Europe. Availability of pau-brasil wood (provisioning services for dyes and provisioning cultural service for musical instruments) in Europe since the colonial age has significantly contributed to and shaped the cultural development of bow making and classical music. We have identified four key trigger events that led to transformations and hence regime shifts in this telecoupled PB-CES: (1) the colonization of Brazil, (2) the invention of the modern violin bow made of pau-brasil, (3) the discovery of aniline colors in Europe, and (4) the inclusion of the pau-brasil species on the IUCN Red List and subsequently in Appendix II of CITES.

The cross-scale social actor analysis reveals strong dependencies on pau-brasil’s ecosystem services within the PB-CES. Bow makers are the most resource-dependent and disadvantaged key actors, showing a high level of involvement in current conservation and plantation efforts, although most of them live outside Brazil. At the same time, selective illegal logging of pau-brasil trees for bow making still occurs. Local NGOs are the most important partners for the implementation of plantations for the protection and possible future commercial use of pau-brasil. Potential threats to pau-brasil include illegal logging, trade, and forest loss. The main threat for traditional bow makers in Europe is the potential future listing of pau-brasil in Appendix I of CITES and the resulting trade restrictions. This analysis did not include the final “consumers” or end users of pau-brasil: concert audiences. Their perception, knowledge, opinion, and potential interest regarding pau-brasil and violin bows may become an additional unaccounted-for driver toward a sustainable development of the PB-CES. Our novel conceptual framework of telecoupled cultural-ecological systems and applied analysis have proven insightful for understanding a complex cultural-ecological system. Further applications and research on telecoupled cultural-ecological systems and the proposed conceptual framework can examine and broaden their applicability and stimulate new transdisciplinary research fields. Their application may serve as a transdisciplinary decision-making tool to increase the sustainable use of pau-brasil for string instrument bows. Transdisciplinary research approaches are urgently needed in order to tackle complex problems; they open new possibilities for multidimensional understanding and communication beyond academic disciplines, nature, and art.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We gratefully thank the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung for the dissertation grant that enabled this study, as well as the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and the DAAD for their support. A special thanks goes to Jakob Kusnick and Svenja Lichtenberg for their critical feedback and contribution to the figures of the article. Additionally, we would also like to thank the reviewers for their constructive feedback, which significantly improved our manuscript.


Our research was conducted in accordance with the “Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Research Practice” of the German Research Foundation. None of the data of our research participants (respondents) is publicly accessible in order to fully protect their privacy; in addition, the answers of the survey were kept anonymous to protect the identity of the respondents and keep individual answers confidential. Interview-based data that support the results of this study are available to the editors upon request from Silke Lichtenberg (SL).


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Correspondent author:
Elisabeth Huber-Sannwald
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Table1  | Table2  | Table3  | Table4  | Table5  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Figure4  | Figure5  | Figure6  | Figure7  | Figure8  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5  | Appendix6  | Appendix7