By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
Teak is the second largest source of income for the Burmese military junta, next to the illegal trade in drugs. The military junta holds a monopoly on logging in the country. This activity does not only fund the regime; logging is also being criticised for destroying rainforest and for involving extensive use of forced labour. The FAO estimates a 1.39% annual rate of deforestation in Burma, as against the world average of 0.23%. These figures, however, do not distinguish between different kinds of forest, and they apply to clear-cutting only. Burma has the largest remaining teak forest in the world, and high prices for exported timber make this tree sort particularly attractive to the regime.
- Everybody knows that the logging that has taken place under the regime is emptying the teak resources at a rate suggesting that, two decades from now at the most, nothing will be left. This is a paradox, because Burma over the past 100 years has proven that it is able to extract teak carefully with felling cycles of 40-50 years, says Lars Løvold, manager of the Rainforest Foundation Norway.
- It is well known that timber is being felled with the use of forced labour in Burma, and that military units requisition both labour and timber by force from defenceless villages, says Christian Moe of the Norwegian Burma Council.
Norway's imports from Burma increased in the year 2000 as compared with 1999, and the increase was mainly due to imports of teak timber. The figures are tiny as compared with Norway's foreign trade with other countries, but international development minister Ann Kristin Sydnes expressed her clear disappointment with the increase when the figures were presented to Parliament late last fall, through a parliamentary question from Liberal representative Odd Einar Dørum. Sydnes, however, would not accept Dørum's proposal for formalising sanctions against the country. She thought an appeal for a boycott ought to suffice.
NorWatch has examined who the biggest teak traders are. After furniture producer Arve Varleite of Scansia stopped sending his Burmese-produced garden furniture to Norway, timber trading companies and shipbuilders are the largest importers. As far as NorWatch is aware, the Interwood company in Drammen was the biggest importer of teak from Burma in the year 2000.
When the Christian Radich needed new teak decks, the Training Ship Foundation Christian Radich turned to Frito, a Porsgrunn-based company with long experience in laying teak decks on larger ships. Frito imported a shipment of teak of unknown origin from Germany, and bought another shipment of teak from Interwood in Drammen to meet the needs of the Christian Radich.
- If Norwegian shipbuilders are only looking for the best quality, that is, natural forest, they immediately get into a moral dilemma. Nearly all the so-called natural teak is from Burma, a regime of abominable brutality, and a regime that has chosen to make the looting of large natural forests one of its chief sources of income, says Lars Løvold of the Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Another possible source of so-called natural teak is Thailand. Thailand has banned logging in its own teak forest, of which there is very little left, but it does export some teak logged in Burma.
NorWatch asked InterWood for a comment. At first, Fredrik Johnsen would not confirm that the company has bought teak from Burma. He added that he did not know where the teak was from, but changed his mind, and said the place of origin was Singapore. He had to admit that Singapore does not have any teak forest, though, and explained the confusion by saying that there are so many intermediaries in such deals.
Interwood's Fredrik Johnsen declined to comment on the company's breach with the Norwegian government's call for a boycott, but he confirmed to NorWatch that Frito bought the teak they imported in the year 2000.
Frito's managing director Jan Kvidaland confirms that his firm is responsible for laying the new teak decks on the Christian Radich. He also confirms that Frito bought a shipment of teak from Interwood last year. He stresses that the teak used on the Christian Radich does not come only from Interwood. Frito bought another shipment of teak in Germany, of unknown origin.
- There are no teak forests in Germany.?
- You know the market well enough to know these things. We have bought some planks from a German wholesaler who had some teak lying around. These are very special formats, you see. Very long planks. Not a lot of people carry this quality any longer, Kvidaland says.
- No, there is hardly any natural teak left. That is a central part of the problem, and that's why I'm calling.
- Are you focusing on this in your article? It does no good to focus on Norway's trade with Burma, when it is so negligibly small!
- Trading in teak from Burma breaks with the government's call for a boycott.
- Now, really! I don't want to know any more about this. Use your energy on something else, Kvidaland finishes and slams the receiver.
Per Rønnevig is the chairman of the board of the Training Ship Foundation Christian Radich, and is responsible for the renovation of the ship. In April 2000, the Foundation printed an advertisement insert in the Dagens Næringsliv business daily, describing the need for capital to restore the ship, and presenting a budget for the restoration. The budget says that the association will spend NOK 3.7 million on the new teak decks. NorWatch spoke to Rønnevig in April 2000, and asked where the teak origins from.
- Where the teak origins from? That is no concern of ours. We buy it from Frito, Rønnevig answered at the time. NorWatch asked whether Rønnevig was interested in avoiding teak from Burma. He answered in the affirmative, but this was not made a requirement when the foundation placed its order with Frito.
- The only thing we formally take into consideration, is that the teak is legally imported, Rønnevig confirmed. He also informed us that the teak had already been paid for.
NorWatch again contacted Rønnevik in January 2001. We informed him that we had now found out that part of the teak was from Burma, while another part is of unclear origin. Would Rønnevig care to comment?
- We asked the supplier to consider this, but it was not a condition. We have not checked whether the supplier has complied with our wish, and we do not plan to do so, Rønnevig says.
- Why was it not a requirement, and why haven't you controlled it afterwards?
- It's hard to get teak, you know, especially when we're talking about the best quality, Rønnevig replies.
In its budget for the restoration, the Training Ship Foundation Christian Radich says the total cost of the several stages will be a little more than NOK 15 million. The association has said they will pay NOK 1 million of this sum out of their own funds. The Municipality of Oslo funded the restoration with NOK 8 million by an extraordinary grant from the operating profits of Oslo Harbour in 1999. The money was granted over the budget item for museums, under the city councillor for culture and education. The association is still seeking to cover an outstanding 6.6 million through gifts and extraordinary funds.
- If the teak decks cost 3.7 million, and the foundation itself is only contributing 1 million to the restoration, do we then correctly assume that the funding from the Municipality of Oslo has paid for the decks?
- The money from the Municipality of Oslo went into stage 1 of the restoration, steel structures and internal furnishings. We also applied to the Ministry of Culture for funds, but we got nothing at all, except the three million granted for operating costs every year.
- So who is paying for the teak, then?
- That's a good question, Rønnevig says, and explains that we might as well consider the entire restoration as a whole. - There is so much to be done, and it costs a good 15 million altogether. What matters is that we still lack money for some of the things we want done, not on what date we are paying the various bills, Rønnevig says.
NorWatch has tried in vain to get comments on this matter from the Municipality of Oslo's commissioner for culture and education, Trine Skei Grande. In the space of one week, she did not manage to answer a single question sent by NorWatch, despite repeated reminders.
We finally got an answer from city government secretary Øyvind Såtvedt.
- This information is entirely new to us, Såtvedt declares, and continues: - Primarily, it is the responsibility of the Christian Radich to find out where the teak is from. He adds that the municipality does not know whether this case will have any consequences for further economic support.
- We will decide on that if, and I repeat if, any further support for the restoration becomes an issue, the city government secretary concludes.
NorWatch has also sought to get comments from minister for culture, Ellen Horn, since the Christian Radich gets more than three million NOK in annual support from the Ministry. When it became clear that the questions did not concern the restoration of the beautiful ship in general, but the origin of the teak decks in particular, though, Ellen Horn was unable to comment on the case. Information manager Berit Gribenow promised to comment in Horn's stead. However, Gribenow was not able to comment either. Just before NorWatch went to press, though, political adviser Aina Holst contacted us.
- This has taken a while, since we had to confer with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before we were able to give you an answer. First, I would like to stress that the signals you mention regarding a rise in the financial support for the Christian Radich do not refer to any political decision. That issue has not been settled. Nor is it settled whether the Ministry of Culture will support the restoration directly, beyond those funds already granted for operating costs.
- Was the Ministry aware that the recently-purchased teak decks originate from Burma?
- No, we were not aware of that. Nor, for that matter, have we received any confirmation that this information is correct.
- Will the origin of the teak have any consequences for the Ministry's views on grant applications for the restoration of the ship?
- That is a difficult question, which we have to study closer here in the Ministry of Culture, Holst says, and adds: - What we are now doing at the Ministry is to send a letter to the Norwegian Museums Authority. They are the ones forwarding the money from the Ministry of Culture to the Christian Radich. In that letter, we ask for the projects funded to adhere to government policy, namely to avoid trading with Burma.
- You say you will ask a government agency to respect government policy. Can't you instruct them to do as you want?
- As I stated, what we do in the letter is to ask them. That is all we will do for now, Holst concludes.
Christian Moe of the Norwegian Burma Council is weary over the government's role in this case.
- The government should not say one thing and do the opposite, but in this case, it does. The government has repeatedly asked Norwegian businesses to avoid trading with Burma. That being so, the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Oslo cannot just out of hand sponsor teak imports from Burma, he says.
Moe points to the ILO's recent request for its member countries to stop supporting trade with Burma that perpetuates forced labour.
Lars Løvold of the Rainforest Foundation comments upon the companies involved, as well as the Norwegian government:
- It is completely irresponsible to contribute to the looting of the last great natural resources of this country. Both because those involved in this trade are thereby supporting the regime, and because they actively aid and abet the removal of one of Asia's most valuable natural forests, they have to stop these imports and make the same requirements when they're looking for teak as all other responsible consumers have to make. This requirement is for the timber to be environmentally certified by a credible, independent certification agency such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
"If Norwegian shipbuilders are only looking for the best quality, that is, natural forest, they immediately get into a moral dilemma. Nearly all the so-called natural teak is from Burma, a regime of abominable brutality, and a regime that has chosen to make the looting of large natural forests one of its chief sources of income."
- Lars Løvold, Rainforest Foundation Norway.
"It's hard to get teak, you know, especially when we're talking about the best quality."
- Per Rønnevig, chairman, Sail Training Association Christian Radich
"The only thing we formally take into consideration, is that the teak is legally imported."
- Per Rønnevig, chairman, Training Ship Foundation Christian Radich
"The government should not say one thing and do the opposite, but in this case, it does. The government has repeatedly asked Norwegian businesses to avoid trading with Burma. That being so, the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Oslo cannot just out of hand sponsor teak imports from Burma."
- Christian Moe, Norwegian Burma Council
Norwatch Newsletter 2/01