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Where does the Greater Mekong’s illegal timber go?

  • Not all lumber is created equal; within the Greater Mekong region, high-quality hardwoods such as Burmese teak and rosewood are particularly valuable and have been logged almost to commercial extinction.
  • Burmese rosewood is highly sought after in China for furniture, while Burmese teak is popular in the European shipbuilding sector as decking for superyachts.
  • Recognizing their role in Myanmar’s illegal timber trade, European Union member states developed a common position in 2017 acknowledging imports of Myanmar timber into the EU to be against the law due to their high risk of illegality.
  • However, shipments continue to leak into the region through countries where enforcement is weaker, including Italy and Croatia.

After forests are logged, felled trees are typically sent to sawmills, where they’re processed into boards, or lumber. It’s in this processed form that wood typically enters the international commodity supply chain. But not all lumber is created equal.

In the Greater Mekong region, high-quality hardwoods such as teak and rosewood from Myanmar are particularly valuable, and have been logged almost to commercial extinction. Burmese rosewood (Dalbergia oliveri) remains highly sought after by Chinese buyers, fueled by a growing appetite for Qing and Ming-style furniture. Though Myanmar banned raw log exports in 2014, the booming demand in China and poor enforcement in Myanmar mean rosewood is regularly smuggled by truck across the land border between the two countries.

Burmese teak (Tectona grandis) is another much-coveted species, often destined for farther destinations. The wood is particularly popular in the European shipbuilding sector, where it’s used for decking in superyachts for the super wealthy.

Recognizing their role in Myanmar’s illegal timber trade, European Union member states developed a common position in 2017 acknowledging imports of Myanmar timber into the EU to be against the law due to their high risk of illegality. Despite this common position, the EU remains the third-largest market for Myanmar timber today after China and India, accounting for 19% of imports by value.

Within the EU, Italy alone accounts for some two-thirds of total Myanmar timber imports, which last year amounted to 24 million euros ($27.4 million). The country has been the largest importer of Myanmar timber products since 2013, and its dominance only grew further after 2017.

As Germany, the Netherlands and others adhered to the common position and clamped down on Burmese timber — conducting raids and issuing heavy penalties — Italy imposed minimal fines. A 2021 report from the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency found an Italian timber trader paid just 1% in fines compared with the total value of Burmese teak it illegally imported from 2018 to 2020.

Today, EU member states like Italy, Croatia and the Czech Republic are known for being weak links where Myanmar timber regularly leaks into the EU. The shipments rarely stay in these countries however. They are often routed to other destinations within Europe, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.