The world’s largest remaining teak forests are located within the borders of the historically troubled region known as Burma. Since 1962, the nation of Burma has been ruled by a brutal, military-led regime, infamous for its oppressive tactics and human rights abuses. One of the primary ways this military junta finances its rule is through the exploitation of the nation’s rich teak forests. That is to say, Burma’s military regime finances its human rights abuses by ravaging its vulnerable tropical forests, a lose-lose for the people of Burma as well as the environment.
In fact, the dearth of human rights violations perpetrated by Burma’s military junta resulted in heavy US trade sanctions in 2003. These sanctions, put in place by the US Treasury, make it illegal to import Burmese teak (or any other goods originating from Burma) directly into the United States. That doesn’t mean, however, that the teak furniture available at your local retailer is conflict-free – far from it.
In order to bypass the US government’s trade sanctions, Burmese teak traders often export their lumber to neighboring countries like India or China to be milled, only then to be exported to the United States through a trade loophole. Often times, these products are even advertised as “Burmese teak.” One reason for that is the long-standing belief that old-growth teak is stronger and more resilient than the teak grown on plantations.
However, studies comparing plantation teak with old-growth teak has proven this belief to be false. According to testing conducted by the USDA, as well as other forestry organizations, there appears to be no significant difference in the density, strength, or beauty of the teak grown on plantations vs. that of Southeast Asia’s rainforests. Ostensibly, the primary difference between the two varieties of teak is their social and ecological costs.