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Myanmar teak is tainted. Time to jettison it, some yacht-making insiders say

  • As Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos looks set to take possession of the world’s biggest sailing yacht in 2022, activists are raising questions about yacht makers continued use of teak from Myanmar, which returned to repressive military rule this year.
  • Bezos, the world’s second-richest person, entered the league of big-ticket environmental funders in 2020, announcing a $10 billion “Earth fund,” of which $2 billion is pledged for land restoration, including forests.
  • Oceanco, the Dutch company reportedly making Bezos’s yacht, defended its use of teak in its projects, saying it was legally sourced. The EU imposed sanctions in June effectively make it illegal for businesses in the bloc to import teak from Myanmar, where harvesting and export of timber is under state control.
  • “We need a PETA-like campaign, supermodels with their bloody fur coats, but a teak equivalent,” says Jessie Rogers, part of a family-run boatyard in the U.K. “You need people to be ashamed of having teak.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is rich and not afraid to show it. In July, the world’s second-richest person blasted out to space in his own spaceship. Come 2022, he looks set to conquer the seas on the world’s biggest sailing yacht.

Most superyachts are outfitted with the highest-quality timber: teak from one of the world’s most troubled countries, Myanmar. The U.N. recently condemned the killing and burning of 11 people including minors by the military junta that now runs the country.

It’s not clear whether Bezos’s yacht, dubbed the Y721, uses Myanmar teak, but Oceanco, the company reportedly making the boat, says it uses legally sourced teak for its projects. An online listing on YachtCharterFleet describes the Y721’s steel hull, aluminum superstructure and teak decks.

The U.K.-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) put the question to Bezos on Twitter. “If Jeff Bezos is going to turn up at a big international conference declaring that he’s going to spend billions of dollars saving or restoring forests, he has an obligation to say whether he’s destroying forests for his own private purposes,” said Alec Dawson, a forests campaigner at EIA.

A sailing yacht with teak decking. Image by larsen9236 via Pixabay.

Bezos entered the league of big-ticket environmental funders in 2020, announcing a $10 billion “Earth fund.” Of that, $2 billion is pledged for land restoration, including forests. The tech mogul did not respond to the EIA’s tweet or Mongabay’s request for information about the superyacht, which itself reportedly costs north of $500 million.

The case of the Bezos yacht is not unusual. The global yacht-building industry is notoriously secretive, and Netherlands-based yacht maker Oceanco has kept the 417-foot (127-meter) Y721 under tight wraps. First glimpses of the boat surfaced only this past October. The company hasn’t publicly acknowledged that it is building Bezos’s boat.

“At Oceanco we ensure all teak used on our projects meets the EUTR-order 995/2010 which is verified by third party verification to ensure due diligence,” a spokesperson for the company said, referring to the EU timber regulations (EUTR). It cited Double Helix Tracking Technologies, a Singapore-based company that relies on a DNA-based system to verify where the teak originated from.

“There’s no way to supply Myanmar teak in a way that complies with European law,” Dawson said.

The EUTR promulgated in 2013 requires first importers to prove that their wood is not illegally harvested. Doing due diligence on the origins of Myanmar teak is extremely difficult, given the country’s political instability, traceability issues and corruption.

In 2017, an Expert Group on the EUTR found that assurances, including those provided by Double Helix don’t fully address the risks or prove compliance. In 2020, the expert group again pointed to the shortcomings, noting that despite Myanmar Forest Certification Committee recognizing Double Helix as an independent verification body, it is “unlikely to guarantee independent verifiability of the legality of the harvest and the traceability throughout the supply chain, due to a systemic shortcoming in the recognition process.”

Myanmar teak, a tropical hardwood prized by yacht builders, is used on decking and inside the boat. A high oil content makes it water-resistant, and silica distributed around the wood keeps it from getting slippery — both qualities highly desirable for boatbuilders. Despite being a hardwood, teak is flexible, suitable for deck planks and for crafting staircases and interior woodwork.

“If you’re talking about the interior, there just isn’t an excuse to use teak,” said Jessie Rogers, who is part of a family-run boatyard in the U.K. “You don’t need wood that will withstand all the things that teak does.” On deck, there are applications where replacing teak is difficult but not impossible, Rogers added. The Lymington-based Jeremy Rogers boatyard is experimenting with alternatives like plantation teak and softwoods treated with Kebony technology.

Teak decking on a luxury yacht at the London Boat Show, January 2018. Myanmar teak, a tropical hardwood prized by yacht builders, is used on decking and inside the boat. Image by Sophie Cohen/Mongabay.

Oceanco, based in Alblasserdam, the Netherlands, and owned by Omani businessman Mohammed Al Barwani, has a history of using teak on its boats. A designer for Oceanco’s Tuhura concept superyacht described it in a catalog as “a big brushed teak box,” sporting teak floors, walls and ceilings. “It has been used for centuries in shipbuilding and is tried and tested,” the company said about teak in its statement to Mongabay.

Though teak trees grow in other parts of Southeast Asia, the best variety is believed to come from Myanmar. Since the British colonial period, teak has been one of the most profitable exports from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Post-independence, nearly five decades of military rule (1962-2011) saw systematic destruction of its old-growth teak forests despite forest department quotas and regulations.

A civilian government that came to power in 2011 tried to improve regulation in the timber sector to allow legally sourced wood from Myanmar unfettered access to lucrative markets like the EU. The return of the military junta to power in February this year raised fresh doubts about the state of forest governance in the country.

After the latest coup, the EU imposed sanctions in June as a way to cut off funding sources to a regime accused of human rights abuses in its attempt to crush the pro-democracy movement. State-owned Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) is responsible for harvesting and selling (including exporting) timber. The sanctions effectively make it illegal for EU businesses to import any wood from Myanmar directly.

But multiple investigations by groups like the EIA show that contraband Myanmar teak is still entering the EU.  The problem lies in the inconsistent enforcement of rules. Even though countries like Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have managed to stamp out direct imports through their ports, others like Italy, Croatia and Greece do not enforce the timber regulations as strictly.

Fixing responsibility for using teak of dubious origins is tricky.

Boatyards that only build yachts are not, by law, responsible for the legal sourcing of teak used on the boats.  This is because they are not usually the ones bringing the teak into the EU. It usually passes through many hands, from specialized timber importers to companies that provide decking services via several timber merchants. Only businesses that first bring the timber into the EU single market are liable for showing it is legally sourced.

Seizures can result in fines, but prison sentences are rare. “There’s no obligation on anybody but the first importers,” Rogers said. “So once that person has decided they’re going to take the risk of a fine, the next person just has to lie, they just lie.”

Mongabay asked some other leading yacht builders in Europe — Feadship in the Netherlands, Nobiskrug and Lürssen in Germany, and Fincantieri Yachts in Italy — if it’s possible to make a yacht that is demonstrably free of tainted teak. They did not respond.

The pandemic that has disrupted the global economy hasn’t dampened the demand for superyachts. “The market’s been roaring,” Sam Tucker, head of superyacht research at London-based VesselsValue, told Bloomberg. “It’s impossible to get a slot in a new-build yard,” he said. “They’re totally booked.”

But getting hold of new Myanmar teak isn’t likely to get easier with the sanctions in place. Companies are still able to use this teak because there exist stockpiles of teak imported earlier. Industry insiders, who were not authorized to speak to the media, told Mongabay that the major yacht makers had access to teak reserves for two to three more projects.

“It’s absolutely mad, there’s a five-year waiting list in every single shipyard throughout Europe for these boats, and they’re all covering their boats in teak,” Rogers said.

A barge transporting teak logs from the forests of northern Myanmar to markets in Mandalay or Yangon. Image by Terry Feuerborn via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

While most yacht builders bear no legal responsibility for sourcing teak, they are not unaware of what is at stake. “We can make a difference to the supply chain, at least to our direct suppliers. Besides their specifications and their costs, we can also ask for a declaration of the footprint of their products,” Giedo Loeff, head of research and development at Feadship, said in a company video when asked about the teak problem. “That’s something we have to start doing.”

The other option is to move away from natural teak altogether. Feadship runs a project to test alternative decking materials focusing on those that are easier to purchase, trace and possibly recycle.

“Due to the increasing complexity of sourcing Teak we are undertaking laboratory tests on alternatives for decking such as bamboo, maple, pine, cork and plantation teak,” the Oceanco spokesperson said. “However suitable alternatives with the same sought after characteristics of Teak — strength, resistance to rot, resistance to wood boring insects and its aesthetic appearance — are not yet available.”

But the allure of teak for high-end yacht buyers isn’t fading, nor is the industry quite ready to break up with the prized wood.

“It’s a delicate topic as it is political, economic and as well emotional in the superyachting sector,” said Jelena Dolecek, a sustainability engineer at Water Revolution Foundation (WRF), an industry-led initiative attempting to make superyachts more sustainable. Companies that are part of the WRF, including Oceanco, have considered their complicated reliance on teak.

However, the database of sustainable solutions collated by the WRF under its YETI program does not include teak alternatives yet.

Plantation teak, which grows faster, about six decades instead of over a century, is one option. Plantations have sprung up in countries like Costa Rica, Indonesia and Mexico to supply teak. The wood is cheaper than natural teak, and it doesn’t share the same water- and weather-resistant properties.

Other natural woods exist that possess some of teak’s desirable qualities, like Sipo mahogany. It comes from giant tropical hardwoods found in West and Central Africa. However, its use risks increasing forest exploitation in a region already witnessing rapid deforestation. Another option is to use more commonly available softwood species and process them to improve stability and durability, like Kebony maple, a modified European species.

Yacht making is an industry that prides itself on building customized vessels for buyers who sink a fortune into their boats, and usually companies defer to clients’ demands. Royal Yacht International Magazine highlighted a trend of owners demanding more green yachts, though this is often limited to reducing the carbon footprint of vessels.

Will wealthy buyers or companies on their own steer clear of teak? Rogers said she doesn’t think so. What is required is much stronger legislation and pressure on companies and clients, she said. “We need a PETA-like campaign, supermodels with their bloody fur coats, but a teak equivalent,” she said. “You need people to be ashamed of having teak.”

Banner image of a luxury yacht by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures.

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
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