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From pine to pencil

The drawing tools manufactured by Faber-Castell are primarily sourced from the company’s own sustainable forests in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 

As forest engineer Kelen Pedroso wraps her arms around this tree, the embrace evokes a tender gesture. She then spreads her hand on the rough bark, while slowly gazing up the tree crown. A fine and straight specimen, she figures, featuring a trunk diameter of roughly 28 centimetres: This pine is ready for harvesting.  

"Where our pencils come from"

For almost four decades, the writing instruments specialist Faber-Castell has been operating its own tree plantations for pencil production In the southeast of Brazil, in the federal state of Minas Gerais. These forests are FSC-certified, thus managed in an ecologically and socially compatible fashion, while also hosting a habitat of native flora and fauna. Spreading her arms wide, forestry engineer Pedroso details the dimensions: “We manage a total area of about 8,200 pine forest hectares – the equivalent of 11,000 football pitches.” So why particularly pine trees? “The Pinus caribaea hondurensis is a Caribbean species, especially stress-resistant and with the ability to survive dry periods of up to six months,” explains the expert. “It also grows quickly in this tropical climate and working with its soft wood is easy. That includes sharpening processes, for example, which makes it the perfect species for pencil production.” In the nearby village of Prata, the timber is cut into slats at the company-owned sawmill, stored for 50 days and then turned into lead and coloured pencils at the Faber-Castell factory based in São Carlos, in the federal state of São Paulo due south of Minas Gerais. With a company history of almost 260 years, Faber-Castell currently produces 2.3 billion pencil units annually in three production plants worldwide. These comprise both graphite pencils, as well as coloured pencils in 120 different colours. Lined up end-to-end, the yearly output would fit around the equator ten times. Faber-Castell Brazil accounts for the majority of this pencil production volume, making it the largest pencil factory in the world.

Forest manager Pedroso trudges through the dry undergrowth, wearing knee-high gear to protect her from rattlesnakes. She stops in front of a young tree nursery and points to a low-hanging branch. “We cut the branches regularly, because our trees must grow as straight and clean as possible. Every knot in the wood would result in less than perfect quality for pencil production.” Plantations of all different ages are spread throughout the forest areas of Faber Castell. “We hereby ensure to never clear entire forest tracts, but only limited areas”. Even in these harvested stretches, individual trees remain standing. Pedroso explains: “Some birds need a rest stop while covering longer distances and these trees offer refuge.” More than 260 bird species are found in the Faber-Castell forests and as scientific studies show, their numbers are actually increasing every year. This holds true for all native fauna living here, as the deserted forest areas provide habitat for more than 722 species: This is where the endangered pampas deer raise their young, the shy maned wolf roams the woods, the puma is caught via the camera traps set up to monitor the mammal populations. Nearly 30 percent of the total area is left in its natural state, featuring rushing rivers and palm groves, small lakes and man-sized ferns.  

"Brazil is a perfect place to grow the pine because it is a tropical country where this species can grow really fast."

Kelen Pedros, forest engineer

The day has progressed into late afternoon, with humidity levels rather oppressive. Tiny flies are buzzing around Pedroso’s face. “Insects are an important bio-indicator,” emphasizes the forestry engineer. "The greater the number of species, the healthier the habitat for flora and fauna. In ants alone, we count more than 200 species.” She turns to her visitors: “How long does it take to produce a pencil?” Bending over, the tree guardian gently strokes a small green shoot on the reddish sandy soil. “It’s actually 20 years! That’s the amount of time needed to cultivate the tree and then process the wood.” She further explains the sustainability approach of Faber Castell: “We plant roughly 300,000 seedlings every year, thus ensuring a continuous life cycle.” As the sun slowly descends behind the treetops, its evening glow sets off the woods in orange lights. Pedroso and her guests prepare to leave and with them, the last human sounds fall silent in this natural setting. From within the forest, the cicadas’ energetic chirping rhythm has risen to a deafening crescendo – an amazing evening concert performed daily by nature.