Burma: Is that conflict timber on your patio?

BANGKOK, Thailand — Though America’s relations with Burma shows signs of thawing, the regime-run country still suffers some of the U.S. government’s heaviest sanctions.

To punish the Burmese government for human rights abuses, the U.S. government won’t let Americans invest in Burma or import its goods. These prohibitions are meant to prevent Americans from buying up Burma’s most desirable resources — such as rare timber and jade — and inadvertently funding the oppressive regime.

Still, U.S. furniture dealers continue to openly market Burmese wood, notably teak, an increasingly rare hardwood prized for its beauty and resilience. Despite Burma’s infamy, and toughening U.S. laws, Americans can still purchase coveted Burmese hardwood off the Web.

WHAT’S SO TERRIBLE ABOUT BUYING BURMESE WOOD?

Sales of any Burmese goods may fund the country’s oppressive junta-run government, accused of forced labor, systematic rape and shelling ethnic villages. Exotic timber is one of the junta’s biggest moneymakers.

In 2007-08, timber was the junta-run government’s fourth largest export, according to the U.K. non-profit Global Witness. The advocacy group, famous for exposing Africa’s “blood diamonds” trade, has lobbied intensely to clean up Burma’s timber trade.

Beyond funding human rights abuses, timber sales also help strip already-ravaged forests. Global Witness’ forestry expert, Jon Buckrell, calls the heavily logged region “one of the most biologically rich and most threatened environments on earth.”

WHO SELLS "BURMESE" WOOD?

As of December 2009, many U.S. companies were openly selling wood labeled as “Burmese” online. They include Floors To Go’s line of "Ulysses Burmese Teak," CanTrust Hardwood’s "Solid Burmese Teak" and Corona Hardwood’s "Burma Mahogany."

Each of these businesses was contacted for comment. Only Corona Hardwood responded, directing questions about the wood’s origin to the importer, Elegance Wood Flooring. That company, through e-mail, also would not comment about its “Burma Mahogany” product, which is advertised as originating in “Burma/Thailand” on its Web site.

WHY DO U.S. BUYERS COVET BURMESE TEAK?

It’s among the most beautiful, resilient hardwood on the planet. It’s resistant to rotting, warping and degrading — even under harsh rain and sun. It was the preferred wood for building Britain’s colonial-era navy. Old-growth teak remains the choice wood for crafting patios, deck furniture or yachts. And it’s a status symbol to boot.

HOW IS BURMESE WOOD IMPORTED INTO THE U.S.?

Though the spirit of the U.S. federal law is clearly against importing Burmese wood, importers have long exploited legal loopholes.

The “Burma Freedom and Democracy Act,” renewed by the U.S. president each year since 2003, bans the import of “any article that is the product of Burma.”

 

To get around this law, American hardwood vendors can simply import Burmese timber from China, where the wood is trucked across the border and sawed into planks.

Additionally, Congress intensified illegal logging laws late last year by amending the Lacey Act, a more than 100-year-old conservationist law. Now, U.S. importers must declare the wood’s “country of harvest.” If that country is Burma, importing that wood is illegal.

It’s possible to process the wood until “it may no longer be considered of Burmese origin,” said Jessica Milteer, a spokeswoman with the United States Department of Agriculture. But hardwoods — which many U.S. companies offer — wouldn’t fall into this category.

Depending on whether federal agents can prove importers or dealers know they’ve trafficked illicit wood, fines range between $250 and $500,000. Some violations can impose prison sentences.

The amendment also says U.S. importers must now heed “any foreign law that protects plants.” So if Chinese conservationist laws prohibit imports of rare Burmese trees, U.S. companies are prohibited from importing that wood. Despite China’s reputation as an unrepentant polluter, a legal crackdown has helped reduce illicit wood imports from Burma in some areas by 70 percent, according to Global Witness.

The U.S., however, has yet to stage a sweeping crackdown on wood importers. The new law isn’t retroactive, so U.S. dealers are free to sell down their remaining stock of Burmese wood.

WILL THE TIMBER SANCTIONS EVER LIFT?

Probably not. The State Department has suggested easing some sanctions to coax better behavior from Burma’s military junta ahead of the slated 2010 election. But the U.S. is unlikely to lift sanctions that protect Burma’s valuable forests, which have already been ravaged by logging and mining.

CAN BUYERS ACQUIRE TEAK WITHOUT FUNDING A MILITARY JUNTA?

Yes. Harsh laws and a dwindling teak supply have given rise to “plantation” teak, often grown in tropical climes around Central and South America. Though this teak is considered more sustainable and eco-friendly, some boat makers and furniture dealers say it just can’t match the quality of old-growth Burmese teak.