Blood teak: Boats for super rich prop up cruel regime
One of the most expensive woods on the market, teak is predominantly found in the dense jungles of Myanmar. Growing slowly over decades, it is durable and has a uniform golden brown color that makes it highly desirable, particularly for high-end furniture and luxury yachts. Just one square meter (ca. 10.7 square feet) of teak decking can cost up to 1,000 euros ($1,066). But the pricetag has done little to slow its popularity. Demand from the 8.5 billion euros yacht industry is fuelling teak logging in the forests of Myanmar. According to the United Nations, the southeast Asian country’s forests are already facing devastation, with almost 15 million hectares lost between 1990 and 2015 — more than the entire forests of Germany.
Much of the timber — often dubbed “blood teak,” as it funds the brutal military junta that has killed nearly 3,000 people since a February 2021 coup — is exported illegally. Such are the findings of Deforestation Inc, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and various media outlets, including DW.
The investigation into Myanmar’s teak trade was based on leaked tax agency files, publicly available trade data, and interviews with traders in 11 countries. The confidential files, mostly from 2021 and 2022, were shared with the ICIJ by the human rights group Justice for Myanmar, the UK-based news outlet Finance Uncovered, and the online data transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets.
When the junta seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government two years ago, the EU, UK, Canada and the US responded with sanctions on relevant individuals and state-owned enterprises. This included Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) which has a de facto monopoly over the country’s timber sector. The aim of the sanctions was to limit the military leadership’s income from exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources. Yet according to DW’s analysis of trade data, timber including teak worth almost 45 million euros has entered the EU since the military coup.
Under EU regulations, timber only has to be inspected at the port of arrival. Once it is in the bloc, it can be shipped from one country to another. And although states such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have ceased direct imports from Myanmar, EU trade data suggests that is not true for Croatia, Greece and Italy, which has become the hub of the teak trade in Europe.
Deforestation Inc found that some Italian yachtdeck manufacturers and timber merchants import teak products from Myanmar through middlemen, who obscure the origin and harvest date of the wood, and then export the goods to customers in other European countries. Leaked files from Myanmar’s tax agency show that between April and September 2021 alone, Comilegno Srl, who describe themselves as “importers and suppliers of timber for flooring in the nautical industry,” imported more than 665,000 euros worth of teak. Comilegno Srl is just one of 27 companies mentioned in the leaked documents.
Lieutenant Colonel Claudio Marrucci of the Italian Forestry Service, interviewed by the Italian investigative platform IRPIMedia as part of Deforestation Inc, said Italy takes a lenient approach towards teak because it is crucial for the country’s almost 2.8 billion euros boat industry. “It is a crime,” he said in reference to the imports of teak despite sanctions, “but considered as serious as the killing of birds.”
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