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Importing Burmese timber is supposed to be illegal. So why are U.S. furniture dealers marketing "Burmese Teak?"
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.