Sanction-busting Italian timber traders defy EU law to import Myanmar teak, aiding the military junta

Despite trade sanctions imposed in June to ban imports of Myanmar teak into Europe, more than 300 tonnes of the ‘king of woods’ worth well over €2 million has since entered into Italy, EIA can reveal.

Economic sanctions against Myanmar came into force following the military coup in February 2021. In particular, they were imposed on the country’s State-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) which is responsible for trade in the highly valued timber much sought after for the decking of superyachts.

Myanmar teak seized in the Netherlands for being in breach of EU law

EIA Forests Campaigns Leader Faith Doherty said: “There’s absolutely no excuse for these criminal imports of teak from Myanmar – it’s deliberate sanctions-busting and the only parties to benefit are the traders and Myanmar’s violent military regime.

“The EU needs to move quickly and demonstrate that its sanctions are more than cosmetic window-dressing by making a firm example of these importers in the courts.”

Even before sanctions were imposed, the EU took a tough stance on imports of teak from Myanmar by member states. The European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), which has been in place since 2013, aims to prohibit traders in Europe from placing illegally harvested timber and products on the EU market.

Since 2017, the EU has taken the common position that it is impossible to guarantee that timber from Myanmar had been legally felled due to failings in documenting the chain of custody – the EUTR requires due diligence by importers to trace timber right back to the moment a tree is chopped down through to importation by another country and, as this is not possible, any timber imports from Myanmar have been in violation of the law

The Experts Group on the EUTR is responsible for enforcing timber regulations in each member state, but one of the major challenges is ensuring there is “uniform implementation”, which is not always the case. Any EUTR due diligence paperwork would show the MTE as the source of timber.

In September, EIA published The Italian Job: How Myanmar timber is trafficked through Italy to the rest of Europe despite EU laws, which exposed some Italian traders involved in the import in illicit timber and the shocking lack of meaningful enforcement by the authorities.

In addition, the report exposed various relationships between suppliers to Italian timber companies and the Myanmar military, illustrating multiple ways this trade could be financially supporting the brutal regime.

Since the sanctions came into force in June, there has been a decline in imports of Myanmar timber. In the first half of the year, more than €1 million worth of timber was entering into Italy every month, but in July this decreased to about €500,000 worth.

However, with the sanctions in place there should be no timber entering at all and, subsequently, timber imports have increased.

Doherty added: “The people of Myanmar and the country’s environment are suffering appallingly at the hands of the military. Frankly, it’s obscene that niche financial interests and the demand for luxury timber are trumping basic human decency and breaking sanctions intended to prevent Myanmar’s junta from this very kind of profiteering for hard currency.”

Over the years, EIA has provided information to enforcement agencies, governments and experts on our findings when investigating the illicit trade in timber and today (25 November) one of its Forests campaigners will be addressing the EUTR Experts Group on the findings of The Italian Job report