Teak has been the wood of choice for boatbuilders for decades, but is it still an ethical option? Helen Fretter and Jessie Rogers examine the human and environmental costs of Myanmar teak and look at alternatives
Teak is synonymous with boatbuilding. But the Environmental Investigation Agency recently issued a report on an 18-month investigation into the teak wood supply chain to the marine industry which raises ‘grave questions’, according to EIA Forests Campaigns Leader, Faith Doherty.
The focus of the EIA’s investigation, which was released in September 2021, was on Italian timber importers of Myanmar (previously known as Burmese) teak wood.
The problems with importing teak from Myanmar are both political and environmental. In February 2021 a violent military coup overthrew the elected government of the south-east Asian nation, putting the country in the control of its military commander-in-chief.
Many nations, including the UK, EU and USA, since imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Myanmar in response to human rights violations, including the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim population.
Timber is a key export of Burma, and the USA, EU and UK imposed sanctions on the import of teak from the country as it is not only a means of financial support for the military junta through its state-owned companies, but also a major environmental concern due to illegal and irresponsible logging.
John Sifton of the organisation Human Rights Watch explains: “Under civilian government, from 2016-2020, the Myanmar authorities actually made some progress on decreasing unsustainable logging and increasing transparency on revenues. After the coup, however, the situation is going back to how it was, with massive and destructive logging, and all the profits going into the pockets of the military, not the people or the country.”
The Environmental Investigation Agency reports that approximately 4 million hectares of forest was lost in Myanmar from 2000-2020, an area equivalent to nearly the size of Switzerland. This destruction has enormous implications for the welfare of an estimated 17 million people who rely on the forests for their livelihoods, and threatens several endangered species, including the Bengal tiger and Indochinese tiger.
Beloved teak wood
Teak is only native to a handful of countries in the world, and slow-grown teak wood from Burmese forests has long been revered in the boatbuilding industry, above faster grown plantation teak.
Jessie Rogers, of Jeremy Rogers Ltd, has a personal interest in the problems with teak as she works in her family yacht building firm, which makes the Contessa 32 and offers a range of repair services including traditional joinerwork, but also has a serious focus on sustainability and finding environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional marine materials. She explains:
“Wild or old growth teak is beloved by boatbuilders. Its oils make it naturally supple and easy to work with, resistant to moisture and pests, its tight, straight grain means it doesn’t crack or split easily, it can be varnished, oiled or left to weather to a silver grey. It is these properties which have led to its popularity, and contributed to a devastating loss of forest habitat in south-east Asia, as fortunes are made.
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“While it’s easy to point the finger at unscrupulous timber traders – and, in Myanmar’s case, a corrupt and illegal military regime – ultimately it is the consumer who is creating the demand, albeit often as a result of being ignorant of the truth as they are mis-sold a product they shouldn’t be buying.
“Since the military coup in Myanmar the language has changed and while before February of this year the European Timber Regulation EUTR (and UKTR) found that there was ‘more than a non-negligible risk that teak from Myanmar was illegal’ since the coup sanctions mean it is now illegal to import into the EU, UK and US.
“But despite the fact the sanctions prohibiting imports came into force on June 21 this year, there seems to have been little reaction in the marine industry. Look on the websites of most timber suppliers and you will see no reference to any sort of issue, environmental or otherwise around the purchase and use of Myanmar teak.”
As Rogers points out, while many of the major teak wood importers have stockpiles that pre-date the imposition of sanctions, continued high demand for teak, particularly for marine decking, structures, interiors and furniture, will create pressure to keep the supply chains open.
She adds: “Open-source trade data for imports from Myanmar clearly show that since the coup teak has continued to be imported into the EU at a value of over €2 million a month between February and May, more than half of this into Italy with other notable importers being France, Sweden and Greece. No wonder the consumer is confused!”
The problem of finding sustainably sourced teak wood pre-dates the coup and most recent sanctions. In spring this year, WOB Timber, a Germany logging company, was fined €3.3 million for evading EU sanctions by importing 31 shipments of teak from Myanmar from 2008-2011 via Taiwan.
In August 2021, the Council of State in the Netherlands found Royal Boogaerdt Timber had broken the due diligence requirements of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) when it imported Myanmar teak. That case was brought by the EIA following an investigation into teak imported via Croatia back in 2016.
The case confirmed that importers have a responsibility to confirm the origin and legality of timber from its felling location, and that companies must confirm traceability of the timber along the entire supply chain. The concern is that after the military coup, a lack of transparency and clear documentation, and increased risk of corruption and illegal logging within Myanmar, makes these due diligence requirements harder to meet.
The most recent EIA investigation found that €1.3-1.5 million worth of timber products were imported from Myanmar into Italy alone during March, April and May 2021 (conversely, teak imports into Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have declined). The EIA gave 27 Italian importers a ‘right to reply’ following their investigation.
Many responded that they fully complied with the EUTR regulations, and that full traceability of the teak was required to meet customs requirements – if it wasn’t legal, they wouldn’t be able to bring it into the country.
For boatbuilders who may not be sourcing their timber directly, the issue becomes increasingly complicated. Myanmar teak is often exported via Singapore, then onto suppliers in Europe.
“A major part of the problem is that only the first importer is subject to the requirement to carry out any sort of due diligence, meaning that the rest of the supply chain is free to greenwash away,” comments Jessie Rogers. “It’s not obvious for builders or concerned consumers how they go about corroborating what they are being told.”
So, what should owners about to place an order for a new yacht or deck repair do? “No one to date has been able to find a really good alternative for teak,” explains Rogers.
Non-wood options include synthetic ‘teak-style’ products like Flexiteek, Esthec, Permateek and PlasDeck. The newer PVC options are designed to overcome some of the inherent drawbacks of teak, with improved heat resistance underfoot and in-built fungus inhibitors, while being maintenance free. Flexiteek’s 2G version is also fully recyclable. Meanwhile cork has the advantage of being a natural product, but from FSC certified forests, often in Portugal.
Spirit Yachts has utilised teak alternatives to stunning effect. Mike Taylor, managing director and head of production explains:
“We no longer use teak on our new builds. We have always taken the sourcing of our timber very seriously and we work closely with our suppliers to understand where the wood originates. All our timber comes from responsibly managed forests and is FSC certified. When reports from the EIA started to throw the sustainability of teak into doubt, we immediately started looking for alternatives. As boatbuilders we all have a responsibility to the environment, and if there is any doubt over the source or sustainability of a certain timber and how it is being managed, then we should be looking for alternatives.
“As many people know, we used Lignia decking on our yachts prior to Lignia going into administration [Lignia went into administration earlier this year]. We have been liaising with timber suppliers and other leading UK yacht builders on viable alternatives, as we will not return to using teak. At the moment, we have two timbers that we are testing extensively.
“We would like to see the industry consistently adopt a sustainable decking material that comes from responsibly managed forests.”
Jeremy Rogers Ltd has also experimented with alternative wood products. “At the boatyard we have been using a thermally modified maple from certified US forests. This is good for things like decking and cabin soles but is not so good at bending round corners as it’s prone to splitting,” explains Jessie.
“We are also trialling a wood called Accoya, another radiata pine like Lignia, but which goes through an acetalisation process making it less environmentally impactful. The Norwegian company ‘Kebony’ has their own modified version of the radiata pine which we are also trialling. All these woods will weather to a silver grey, making them more suitable for applications where the wood is to be left unvarnished and we are trialling it on our own Contessa 26 refit for toe and taff rails and in the cockpit.
“For our Contessa 32 tillers we have opted for traditional ash and Douglas Fir, and for interiors we are encouraging customers to consider non-tropical hardwoods, like cherry, oak or walnut.
“In the short term, there are occasions where we do still need to use teak – such as matching repairs, or for toe rails which need to bend without splitting – and for those we have been lucky to source some decent Costa Rican teak with very good provenance record. However, consumers should beware of being sold ‘eco’ or plantation teak that is simply ‘timber washed’ Myanmar wild teak. Isotopic analysis recently done on teak being sold in the Netherlands that was supposedly from an FSC plantation in Brazil was actually old growth teak from Burma.”
Jessie’s advice for owners is to try and find an alternative, but if you do use teak “don’t buy Burmese and do question where it has come from, and through which channels.
“In short, treat it like the incredibly precious resource that it is, because as things stand, only the consumer can drive the change.”
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