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Teak wood, prized for its durability, strength, and weather-resistance, is indigenous to Southeast Asia. Although teak forests were once common in this part of the world, farming and land cultivation has dramatically reduced the supply. Some of the only remaining old-growth teak forests are within the country of Burma, which was re-named Myanmar by the military regime controlling it. Wood indigenous to these forests is known as Burmese teak. Because of that reigning government's alleged human rights abuses, the importation of Burmese teak is illegal in several countries, including the United States.
Much of the teak on the free market today is the product of teak tree plantations, which have been planted and designed for quick harvesting in tropical climates around the world. Lush valleys of Central and South America are popular plantation sites, as their conditions mimic those of the Burmese rain forest. Furniture designers and teak wood collectors are of mixed minds with respect to the quality of plantation teak. Some believe that it imparts the same strength, luster, and quality of old-growth wood, while others claim that “true” teak requires many more years of growth, as well as more natural growing conditions.
Burmese teak, along with other indigenous Asian teak, was traditionally used by communities in those cultures in wooden paneling for homes, bridge construction, and temple facades, owing to its intensely durable nature. Even centuries-old teak structures still exist in these countries basically unharmed by weather or the elements. Local use of teak dwindled once the wood became valuable to export.
Exportation of Burmese teak took off once Europeans, who typically came to the area as colonists, discovered the wood’s many attributes. Before long, Southeast Asian teak was being crafted into modern furniture for European household use, and soon became something of a status symbol. Teak wood remains expensive, and still carries with it an air of status. It is popular for indoor as well as outdoor furniture, and is often used in boat casings and shells.
The United States outlawed the importation of Burmese teak along with any other product of Burmese origin in 2003, citing the militaristic government’s numerous human rights abuses and anti-democratic stance. According to the U.S. government, importing Burmese teak would allow American dollars to fund the military regime’s activities. It has often been claimed that the military finances many of its activities through the sale of indigenous teak, which has led some commentators to call Burmese teak “conflict teak.”
Burmese teak still manages to make its way into the U.S. and European marketplace, but often with its past at least superficially concealed. This is largely owing to the teak wood’s frequent export to nearby India and China. Manufacturers in those countries will accept and process Burmese teak timber, then re-sell it as a direct export.
The United States attempted to eliminate this loophole with the 2008 Lacey Act, legislation requiring exporters to list any plant product’s “country of harvest.” Under the act, plants and timber originally from the Burmese region are illegal to export, even if they are coming from another country. The act has greatly slowed the entry of Burmese teak into the U.S. marketplace, but placed no sale or use restrictions on teak lumber or products already within U.S. borders.