4 May, 2021
Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People
In front of the entrance of the Rivièra Maison furniture
store in Utrecht stand two low garden tables made of teak. On sale, says the
saleswoman, because the next season is already coming up. Where does the wood
come from? "Oops," she replies, "that is an unusual question." She goes to the
computer inside the shop and comes back out radiantly: "These tables are from
India!" That sounds likely, because since 2013 exports of furniture from India
to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Just like Rivièra Maison, a large chain
with a hundred sales points in the Netherlands and six hundred worldwide,
dozens of other Dutch companies source their teak products from India. While
the country itself produces only a limited amount of teak, India is the world's
largest exporter of teak products.
In order to meet the
enormous demand, India is importing more and more wood from other countries for
processing into "Indian" furniture or other objects. Teak is a popular wood but
difficult to obtain and whenever a fertile source of teak is restricted by international
regulations, such as virgin forests in Thailand and Myanmar, India shifts its
focus to new suppliers.
Today, much of the teak in India actually comes from the
young East African state of South Sudan, a country where the trade in timber is
barely regulated. South Sudanese wood is not prohibited on the European market,
but the seller must be able to prove that it comes from a legal source. The
chance of that happening is small: 90 per cent of South Sudanese logging is
Any wood that reaches European stores is therefore almost
always illegal. The citizens of poverty-stricken South Sudan are excluded from
the timber trade which is dominated by foreign companies whose little domestic
revenues go into the pockets of corrupt politicians and rebels who until 2020
used it to finance a destructive internal war. Using trade data, social media
forums and discussions with importers, we followed the potential route that
looted South Sudanese timber takes to Europe via India. We pretended to be
traders and proposed one illegal deal after another, often on the basis of
forged documents. Despite the introduction of the European Timber Act in 2013,
which should have ended the sale of illegally harvested timber, it still
appears to be easy to get illegal timber onto the Dutch market.
"Sir we get the supply from Sudan. The certificate of origin
we can make Uganda, Congo or whatever you want", responds our contact from
Pratham Exim Solutions when we approach him in a Facebook group and present the
strict European guidelines. "We pay some money to an official and get the
origin papers we want." We can choose from five East African countries of
origin: Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda. Of those, only Congo and
Tanzania actually have teak plantations.
Various Facebook groups show how India gets its teak. Timber
traders, mainly from India, offer large quantities of teak of dubious origin.
Posing as traders, we ask if someone can deliver timber from South Sudan to the
Netherlands. Someone can. "We get teak from Sudan that comes via Uganda, where
we fill the containers in Kampala before it leaves for the port of Mombasa.
From there we ship it to India or another country," says the owner of Pratham
Exim Solutions when asked which route the wood will take on its way to Europe.
At our request, he draws up a plan to ship our consignment
of wood first to India, and from there to Rotterdam. India, which also has teak
plantations, is in principle a legitimate country of origin. "We have good
contacts at the Indian Chamber of Commerce, so the papers are not a problem,"
assures the merchant. The chat provides evidence of forged labels of origin and
a detailed plan to sell wood from South Sudan via India as wood from India. We
cut off the conversation just before closing the deal.
Export data of timber consignments from East Africa to India
for 2019 shows more than a hundred companies that demonstrably ship South
Sudanese teak to India. We bought this data from the Seair, an Indian company
that collects import and export data at Indian customs. It concerns five
hundred teak shipments totaling twenty thousand cubic meters, with an official
value of twelve million euros - not including the inevitable bribes. We also
count another 120 parties from Kenya and Uganda that most likely also come from
South Sudan. South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the
timber market is not yet nationally regulated: as soon as a South Sudanese
party enters a timber market in the nearby Ugandan capital of Kampala, the
freight becomes "Ugandan". A number of these companies also say they do
business with Europe.
Our data is just the tip of the iceberg. According to
calculations by the American research firm C4ADS, more than 100,000 tons of
teak from South Sudan go on the world market every year. Teak, "the king of
woods," is native to Southeast Asia and is particularly popular in the boat
building and furniture industries because of its weather resistance and
"stability", as traders call it. The limited and more selective logging in
primary forests in recent decades has driven up the price.
While luxury yacht builders continue to prefer "primal
teak", plantation wood from Africa is an inexpensive alternative for furniture
builders. South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa:
they were planted in the 1940s and are now "ripe" for felling. Usually,
plantation teak is relatively well regulated, but this is not the case in South
Sudan. The United Nations reports that there are virtually no legal logging
concessions, not even for large companies, and that there is no supervision. In
addition, replanting trees is a prerequisite for felling in regulated
plantations but this does not happen in South Sudan.
Besides oil, teak is the young state's most valuable raw
material, were it not for the fact that the lion's share of the logging takes
place below the radar of the tax authorities. According to the UN, the country
could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector
annually. In reality, only one to two million comes in.
On the Internet, the trade in Sudanese timber is less
disguised. There are photos of traders proudly posing next to packed containers
on Facebook. "Good Sudan prices" is the caption. Pixelated number plates reveal
the Ugandan heritage of the individuals. Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu went
undercover to investigate the South Sudanese timber market for his documentary
series The Profiteers in 2018. Namu shows how illegally felled teak from South
Sudan is mixed with teak from some legal concessions in surrounding regions at
a timber market in the Ugandan capital Kampala-the most common method used to
conceal the origin of the wood according to Interpol. The fully loaded
containers leave Kampala for their next destination, the Kenyan port city of
Mombasa, where they are hoisted onto cargo ships. An estimated 73 per cent of
South Sudanese teak ends up in India, where it is cut or processed into
"South Sudan has only existed since 2011 and has had little
time and capacity to regulate the timber market," Namu said from his office in
Nairobi. "The market is largely in the hands of foreign companies who pay
generous bribes to government officials and rebels who protect loggers." The
money has been used to finance a civil war since 2013, Namu said. That ethnic
conflict between the two largest populations in the country came to an end in
early 2020 yet there is still fighting in some regions. The population is very
poor and the government is among the most corrupt in the world.
Somewhere in the
Lopik industrial area of Utrecht in the Netherlands the smell of wet wood is in
the air. Wet angelim vermelho, a tropical wood, gives off a sweet-sour scent.
Ipe, itauba, massaranduba and twenty other tropical woods are also cut here.
But teak is missing. "If you trade in it, you just have blood on your hands,"
says timber merchant Albert Oudenaarden. Oudenaarden is the director of Van den
Berg Hardhout, a wholesaler who only trades in wood that has been certified by
the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) as sustainable. He can trace every plank
of wood in his timber yard to a specific place in the jungle.
Oudenaarden can talk for hours about the importance of wood
and the controlled felling of trees which creates space in the jungle and is
good for biodiversity if done right. Never remove too much in one place, cut
safely and in a controlled manner, do not go into the forest with big trucks,
leave important places for animals and the local population alone. His dream?
To have only sustainably harvested wood on the Dutch market. Since 2013,
however, he has seen the demand for his sustainable wood stagnate. This is a
bitter consequence of the new European wood law. "Many companies are
increasingly ignoring FSC. The law is intended to combat illegal logging, but
whether it does so, I have my doubts about it. In any case, legality says
nothing at all about the sustainability of a party."
According to Oudenaarden, the law takes the wind out of the
sails of sustainable wood. Furniture makers confirm this. "Such a label only
costs money. The products comply with the wood law, so it is good, right?" The
European Union introduced the European Union Timber Regulation in 2013. Anyone
who puts wood products on the market must research the entire trade chain and
take measures to stem illegality in the chain. An authority has been designated
in every European country to supervise the timber trade. Years of lobbying by
environmental organisations preceded the introduction of the European Timber
Regulation but seven years after its introduction, the scheme has turned out to
be much less effective than hoped.
First of all, there are the exceptions: a multitude of
products such as chairs, wooden coffins and musical instruments are not covered
by the regulation. A teak garden chair made from legal, illegal or wood of
unclear origin does not contravene the law. A second weakness is the
susceptibility to fraud. Anyone who imports products that do comply with the
regulation - table tops, cabinets, whole tree trunks - must have a lot of documents
proving the exact, legal origin of the wood. But that is only a "paper reality"
says timber merchant Oudenaarden.
You can say anything
in documents. Indeed, we easily find a fictitious label of origin from the
Indian Chamber of Commerce. Tampering with labels is common practice in the
international timber market. Previous research shows, for example, that illegal
coniferous wood from the Ukrainian Carpathians ended up in the Netherlands with
false papers in 2016, and wood from Latin America and Southeast Asia is also
"laundered" more than once.
Third is the weak control over this fraud, including in the
Netherlands. Because the Timber Act does not regulate the import but only the
marketing of timber, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is
the supervisory authority in the Netherlands. The body makes company visits
based on risk indicators such as the country of origin, product type or
processing country. According to critics, that role should have been assigned
to customs. "The border is the only place where you can really say something
about the origin of wood," says Peter Hartog, head of the environmental team of
the Rotterdam police. "Once in the warehouse of a company, it is impossible to
say whether that one pile of paper actually belongs to that one wood lot."
"You better be an
environmental criminal than a drug trafficker," says Hartog in his office in
Hoogvliet, where the depot houses confiscated snakeskins and swordfish.
"Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties," he sums
up. Since 2006, Hartog has completed five investigations into the illegal
timber trade. There should and could have been more if the work was less
international in character and the capacity of supervisory authorities somewhat
The Netherlands has one of the five largest timber ports in
Europe. Customs, which check for taxes and CITES - a list of internationally
protected flora and fauna - has to deal with 75,000 containers of wood entering
the port of Rotterdam every year, and the NVWA must supervise at least 5,000
traders. Other matters are also given higher priority in the investigation by
the police. "Then calculate the chance of being caught," says Hartog.
The European Union is
only as strong as its weakest link. Under the Timber Act, only the first trader
to place a prohibited batch on the market is punishable. And there are quite a
few weak links, the European Commission concluded in an evaluation of the law
in 2016. Most countries made far too few human and financial resources
available, "which makes the deterrent effect of the enforcement activities
rather limited". Dutch customs acknowledges that they only employ a few people
who can distinguish one type of wood from another, and two inspectors work at
In 2017, the authority imposed a conditional fine of 20,000
euros per imported cubic meter on the Boogaerdt company for illegally marketing
teak from Myanmar. This is one of the few cases dealt with by the NVWA in
recent years. Despite the fine, Royal Deck in Livorno, another company owned by
the Boogaerdt family, still imports from Myanmar. A video that was until
recently posted on the company's website shows large shipments of timber in the
port of the Asian country, and proudly advertises the timber's provenance.
Myanmar is a notoriously high-risk country when it comes to
the origin of wood. The Netherlands has blacklisted it because it is impossible
to distinguish illegally from legally obtained timber in the country due to
fraud. Yet it is openly sold in several places in the Netherlands. The fact
that wood from forbidden countries of origin still ends up in Europe also
illustrates the ease with which teak of more diffuse origin - such as South
Sudan - can land in Europe.
Traditional East Asian countries of origin are increasingly
restricting the export of teak. India, a country with a strong woodworking
culture but too little wood of its own, drew its shortages from the jungles of
Myanmar until 2014 when that country was issued an international export ban due
to the widespread corruption and illegal logging involved in the sector. Indian
merchants have since been importing from East Africa. A simple calculation explains
the fraud: Indian forests today can only meet 5 per cent of the demand
annually. The rest is imported from Africa and Latin America. Ninety per cent
of the supply from East Africa comes from South Sudan. According to Indian
sources, it cannot be determined where the wood on the Indian market was
harvested. When asked where they get their wood from, Indian teak suppliers are
curt: "We don't do that business." Or they hang up the phone.
Since 2013, Indian exports to the Netherlands have
quadrupled. Some of the teak products arrive in the Netherlands through the
Alibaba online store. Some of the companies we approach openly admit that they
source their teak from East African countries such as South Sudan to market
them on the European market as a "product of India". "We deliver to Europe by
land, air or sea. Never had any problems with it, "says Saurabh Gupta of the
Indian company Medieval Edge.
In data on the trade
flows between India, the Netherlands and Belgium, we find 161 consignments of
teak products that were exported from India to the Low Countries between
September 2018 and September 2020. Sometimes these are orders from private
individuals, or products not intended for further sale: a large elephant,
wooden horses for the furnishing of a pharmacy - "a teak temple for the home"
bought at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Three quarters go to furniture
chains and wholesalers who sell them on to local retailers.
furniture buyer Gideon Manger does not want to believe his saleswoman's
answer. He must have provided incorrect information: "I would never import teak
from India. We only work with certified wood from Indonesia. We think that is
very important." To reinforce his story, he sends a screenshot of a certificate
from the factory in Indonesia.
That remains to be seen though. In export data, we see
fourteen orders - making up a total of almost twelve hundred products made of
teak and mango wood - from Rivièra Maison to a company in Moradabad, a city
east of Delhi. Teak from India, and therefore of unclear origin. In an official
response, Rivièra Maison says that the products ordered in India, although made
of teak, are exempted by the European wood law and can therefore still be sold.
The furniture store is certainly not the only one that
purchases in India. For example, furniture wholesaler Hazenkamp also sells teak
products: wine racks, coffee tables, clocks and lanterns. Where does that come
from? "Yes, it will all be India, it is produced there. I dare not say where
the wood comes from. Yes, I think it comes from India." But isn't he legally
obliged to investigate? The employee ends the conversation.
Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low
penalties" The NVWA is aware of the existence of South Sudanese teak, the
service says, but has not found it on the Dutch market in the past five years.
According to the authority, most of the inspected companies have the correct
documents, but she admits that this does not say everything. A report by
Deloitte on behalf of Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten shows that the NVWA
does indeed miss the big picture: it only carries out 50 wood inspections per
year, often at the same companies. "It is first and foremost up to the business
community itself to comply with the rules," the NVWA said in a response. "After
all, it is in everyone's interest to combat illegal deforestation."
recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam as a lawyer and is
determined to do something for her native country. She views the logging in
South Sudan with sorrow. She fled the civil war in her country with her family
in the 1990s. Relatives who have stayed in South Sudan see one loaded truck
after another driving out of the jungle. Indonesia introduced its own quality
marks more than ten years ago and obliged exporters to process logged wood in
the country first to maintain employment. Moboic has something like that in
mind. She hopes to acquire a legal logging concession in the country so that
her enterprising cousin can make furniture out of it to ship in a direct line
to the Netherlands. "Unique furniture with local influences. But for people
like my cousin, it is difficult to get teak. The only option is to buy it from
foreigners while it grows in their country. The wood leaves South Sudan.
Nothing is left for the Sudanese themselves."