As bombs fall on the citizens of Ukraine and we watch in horror at the brutal impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unhinged invasion, bombs are also falling thousands of miles away on the people of Myanmar, also on the orders of a deranged despot, General Min Aung Hlaing.
What has this got to do with our Forests campaigns here at the Environmental Investigation Agency, where we’ve been exposing environmental crime for decades, including the illicit trade in Burmese teak, the most valuable timber on Earth?
This Saturday my phone was pinging through the roof with messages and press links to the seizure by Italian authorities of the superyacht Sailing Yacht A, also known as Sy A, owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko.
It was seized using sanctions imposed by the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of Melnichenko’s alleged business and political profits arising from his relationship with Putin.
But Sailing Yacht A has been on EIA’s radar for some time – in 2016, we identified a shipment of teak being used aboard the vessel, imported from Myanmar in direct violation of the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR).
Seizing his superyacht in the current situation is one thing, but we believe those who built and furnished Sailing Yacht A with illegal Burmese teak should also be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The EUTR was designed to combat illegal logging and the illicit trade in timber into the EU. Central to its requirements is the concept of ‘due diligence’, which in practice obliges companies to identify and mitigate any risks of illegality in their supply chains – right back to the point the original trees were felled.
In EIA’s two-month investigation of Sailing Yacht A in 2016, we identified a shipment of 1,278 pieces of teak, which at the time cost €174,750, being used for decking on the yacht, just one of many shipments from the Myanmar-based business Teak Solutions and imported in contravention of the EUTR.
At the time, we notified the German authorities responsible for implementing the EUTR, but nothing happened. However, a German prosecutor became very interested when learning that bills were left unpaid as Sailing Yacht A began to set sail, a problem which was soon resolved, allowing the vessel to head off to a new destination.
The issue is by no means restricted to the superyachts of Russian billionaires. Work is currently nearing completion on the £420m superyacht of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest man. It will be the largest sailboat ever built, with little expense spared.
Does it have Myanmar teak for decking and other uses? We suspect it does, but neither Bezos nor anyone else involved is willing to be open about it and we know why – no-one is able to comply with the EUTR because it is near-impossible to verify where the teak was logged in Myanmar, especially now with a civil war raging.
Why is the issue of illegal timber trade so important in the present state of affairs?
Myanmar, Russia and Belarus rely to a significant extent on the export of timber and wood products, in many cases extracted at great environmental cost.
Those who have superyachts flaunt them as symbols of massive wealth and power; for their ocean-going playthings, they want the best – and for decking, Burmese teak is the best.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, there were laws in place to which governments could and should have given far more resources and support, but they didn’t.
As consumers of Russian timber, such as IKEA, withdraw their investment and trade, so should those trading teak from Myanmar. The traders engaged in shipping Burmese teak around the world are in part responsible for supporting the country’s violent military junta, which seized power in February last year.
This was recognised when the UK, EU, US and Canada all imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s timber, specifically on the State-owned organisation Myanmar Timber Enterprise.
As with the horrific, world-destabilising Ukraine invasion, disrupting cash flows to despots is a good thing – but the world should not have been long-ignoring current laws which can contribute to stemming the cash flows used by gangster regimes to stay in power in the first place.
The traders who have benefitted from the timber trade in and out of Russia, Belarus and Myanmar must also be held to account as enablers of corrupt autocracies as well as for breaching international law.
In the case of Burmese teak, it is well known who those traders are and as I write this yet another container of teak is being shipped out of Myanmar, even though sanctions remain in place.
As long as there are no consequences for those who blatantly disregard the law, they will continue to do so – and that includes the Russian owners of superyachts who are currently scrambling to evade seizure.
So, the next time you see a superyacht know this – it is more than likely decked out with Myanmar teak. We and the people in Myanmar call it ‘blood timber’ and for good reason.