- Dutch police led raids in six locations in the Netherlands this month, where they seized teak originating from Myanmar.
- The EU does not allow timber that is illegally logged or obtained through overexploitation of forests to enter its markets.
- The seized teak allegedly entered Europe through the Czech Republic, where the enforcement of regulations is weak and was subsequently brought to the Netherlands.
- It is effectively impossible to import Myanmar teak into Europe because there is a high risk of the timber being illegally logged and difficulty in obtaining adequate and credible documentation to prove provenance.
Dutch authorities carried out raids in six locations in the Netherlands seizing teak, widely used in luxury yachts, this month. The wood, originating from Myanmar, arrived in the Czech Republic from where it was funneled to the Netherlands. The European Union tightly controls imports of Myanmar teak because of concerns about illegal extraction and overexploitation of natural forests.
The seizure was carried out by the Dutch police, working with the Netherlands food and consumer product safety authority as part of a broader investigation into the illegal trade, which persists despite strict EU rules implemented in 2013 to excise illicit timber from EU markets. “We suspect the companies involved that they deliberately circumvent the rules to still trade this wood within the Netherlands,” Arno Paas, a detective with the Dutch police said in a statement.
In the past five years, several European companies have been taken to court for importing Myanmar teak without doing due diligence. No companies have been named yet in connection with the raids. “As long as the investigation is ongoing, no charges have been filed,” Valentine Hoen, a spokeswoman for the Dutch prosecutor’s office responsible for the investigation, told Mongabay. Hoen declined to share details about the investigation including which companies or individuals could be charged.
Teak (Tectona grandis) is a tropical tree species native to South and Southeast Asia. Its wood is used to make high-end furniture and is favored for making boat decks because it is highly durable. India, Indonesia, and Myanmar are the biggest suppliers of teak to the global market. Myanmar hosts about half of all natural teak forests in the world but also has public and private teak plantations.
However, growing global demand for timber, poor enforcement of laws, and conflicts in border areas have led to significant illegal logging and overharvesting in the country, driving deforestation, especially in teak-rich natural forests. Myanmar lost 3.38 million hectares (over 13,000 square miles) of tree cover between 2001 and 2018, according to Global Forest Watch. In the past five years, almost all of the tree cover loss occurred within natural forests, the data shows.
The Bago mountain range in south-central Myanmar is known as the “home of teak,” but has, over the years, emerged as a hub for illegal logging. A study covering four reserved forests in the region found that forest area had declined by over 40% between 2000 and 2017. Despite a 10-year logging ban in place since 2016, local reports suggest illegal timber extraction continues.
All categories of forests in Myanmar are managed by the state. The government-controlled Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) has a monopoly over logging in these forests, which is supposed to be done sustainably. The forest department sets quotas for the amount of teak that can be sustainably harvested every year. But, MTE has historically not respected the limits and continues to overexploit forests a recent investigation by the U.K.-based NGO, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), found. Teak obtained through illegal logging is barred from EU markets, but because the legality of the wood supplied by the MTE is also suspect, the entire trade appears to be tainted.
While neighboring China and India are the largest importers of Myanmar’s teak, there is substantial demand in the EU and the U.S., where it is used for furniture manufacture and in boat-building, especially yachts and superyachts, for which the finest quality teak is sought. “Yacht makers display an almost ideological obsession with the questionable narrative that only Myanmar teak will suffice,” the 2019 EIA report noted.
The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) that aims to curb illegal logging by banning the import of illegally harvested timber came into force in 2013. With rapid forest loss and growing concerns about unlawful timber exports, the Myanmar government imposed a ban on the export of raw timber in the form of round logs in 2014 and slashed the annual allowable cuts. Then in 2016, all logging was temporarily banned for a year. The ban on exports of raw timber, including teak logs, from public and private plantations, was lifted earlier this year, but not for those sourced from natural forests.
The Myanmar government said it was working towards ensuring that only legally verifiable teak from the country enters the international market. However, in the absence of an airtight system to do that, effectively no Myanmar teak can be brought to the EU because of the high risk of it being illegally sourced. MTE documentation certifying legality is not enough because they are still not considered credible.
The recently-seized timber was channeled through Slovenia and the Czech Republic because the implementation of EUTR is weak there, according to the EIA. The crackdown included a raid in the Czech Republic. “This is an example of companies trying to evade EUTR enforcement by using third countries as landing points for timber that does not comply with the requirements of the EUTR,” Alec Dawson, a forests campaigner with EIA, said.
U Than Soe director of the Department of Forestry told the Myanmar Times that the government was reviewing its 2016 forest policy to deal with persistent deforestation. He added that the review would look into “what areas should be demarcated as watershed forests, which areas should be allowed for timber extraction and which areas should be conserved and protected.” The Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry had not responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment at the time of publishing.
Kyaw, T. Y., Germain, R. H., Stehman, S. V., & Quackenbush, L. J. (2019). Quantifying forest loss and forest degradation in Myanmar’s “home of teak.” Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 89–101. doi: 10.1139/cjfr-2018-0508
(Banner Image: Seized teak in the Netherlands. Image courtesy: Dutch Police)
Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
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