In the 1940’s, British colonizers planted teak seedlings across thousands of hectares of South Sudan. The better part of a century later, in 2007, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that sustainably harvesting the timber, now some of the world’s largest stands of the prized hardwood, could produce as much as $100 million a year in export revenue for the country. Currently, South Sudan’s teak exports reap 1-2% of that projected total.
Illegal Logging in South Sudan Highlights Need for Responsibly Raised Teak
The fact that the nation’s teak harvesting is unsustainable is far from surprising—upheaval is the word often used to describe the situation on the ground. Since 2013, over 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes, over 2 million of which have sought refuge in neighboring countries as fighting continues between government and rebel forces throughout South Sudan. In February, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported that recent “clashes between government forces and the rebel National Salvation Front have displaced some [additional] 13,000 people and prompted about 5,000 to flee across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
International timber companies have used the conflict as an opportunity to extract large amounts of wood. In fact, the South Sudanese governor of the Yei River State, Frank Matata, was recently suspended after being recorded asking for a $30,000 bribe in exchange for allowing two containers of teak wood to pass through Uganda.
Though we might expect timber to be the last concern in the midst of such suffering, Bio Kuer, Executive Director of the Nile Initiative for Health and Environment, worries about the long-term effects of the extraction: “There is a concern by the way the teak is cut in South Sudan and this will have some serious negative impacts on the people and the environment.”
In the rush to harvest, teak trees are cut in a manner that does not allow for regrowth. “In areas where trees have been cut completely, you begin to see soil erosion taking place because when it rains the speed at which the water is running is no longer broken by anything,” Kuer adds. “And when the soil is eroded, any farming activity in that area will be affected.”
The environmental and economic devastation taking place in South Sudan reminds that the insatiable demand for teak can restore as well as destroy. When planted on degraded land, teak plantations can stabilize soil, prevent erosion, sequester carbon, and provide jobs and income for local economies and foreign investors alike.
In partnership with experts and research organizations around the world, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) completed “The Global Teak Study” in 2017. Because of the global demand for responsibly raised teak timber, the study authors explain that teak has exceptional value as a means to “diversify farm production, support food security, generate income and reduce financial risk,” particularly for small-scale production systems.
Global teak production is expected to increase in the near future, “in particular from planted forests in Central and South America.” The key to long-term success is learning from illegal operations like Myanmar and South Sudan and reversing the destructive trends. Providing local work and fair wages, harvesting in a manner that not only allows for regrowth, but plans for it, and employing cost-reducing management practices like intercropping and raising high quality seedlings on the farm all enhance the quality of the land, labor, product, and ultimately profitability of the investment.
As the study confirms: “In view of the declining supply of quality teak from natural forests, the long-term market prospects of plantation-grown teak appear promising provided that wood quality can be improved through the use of superior planting material, proper site selection and best management practices.”