When discussing ecosystem health, it isn’t often that non-native is a positive qualifier. But under proper management, non-native teak plantations may actually play an integral role in protecting native stands and habitats.
Non-Natives to the Rescue of Hardwoods?
Teak grows naturally in only four countries in the world—India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. Amy Smith, Manager of Wood Sector Engagement at the World Wildlife Fund, notes that teak is “increasingly rare within its natural range. The declining natural range has led to more restrictions on exports of round wood teak in some countries.” Currently, Smith explains, in “Myanmar there is a ban on logging natural teak altogether.”
Because of teak wood’s exceptional color, workability, and natural resistance to rot, it is highly sought after in nearly every market. Unfortunately, this demand has led to dangerous levels of exploitation and illegal logging. A 2013 World Wildlife Fund report concluded that 85% of the teak coming out of Myanmar should be considered illegal. In addition to illegal harvesting of native old-growth teak, there is also growing concern about forged “Green Books,” the documentation intended to prove that lumber was gathered in compliance with Myanmar law.
This illegal lumber continues to find its way into the market. In an undercover investigation, the UK’s Environmental Investigations Agency found nine companies in five European countries were not meeting EU timber regulations and consistently failed to effectively monitor the original source of their teak. This lack of oversight fuels habitat destruction.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, since 2010, Myanmar is averaging a net loss of 1.3 million acres of forest each year, ranking third-worst in the world for its rate of deforestation.
Establishing teak plantations outside of teak’s native environment relieves market pressure that is destroying overharvested native forests. “Plantation teak takes pressure off the illegal cutting of jungle woods including teak from Myanmar (Burma),” says Kevin Yardley of Diamond Tropical Hardwoods.
The key to analyzing the actual impact of these plantations is location and management. Yale-educated conservationist Andrea Johnson, who works with the Environmental Investigation Agency, explains, “On the negative side, non-native species haven’t evolved within the ecosystem they’re being brought to, and therefore are not likely to sustain the same complexity of ecosystem relationships and services: the insects, pollinators and dispersers that have co-evolved with native species, the soil fungi and microorganisms.”
But, Kevin Yardley reminds, “Plantation teak is like potatoes from Idaho or corn from Idaho.” It isn’t intended to function as native habitat. “It was planted for human consumption.” When teak plantations are used to restore degraded cattle land, or even replace annual crops that require near constant soil disturbance, “reforestation decreases global warming and improves soils.”
Smith adds that while timber plantations are still fundamentally monocultures, “plantations offer other ecological benefits . . . such as carbon sequestration and prevention of erosion and sedimentation. And plantations, provided they are well managed and located, can take pressure off of natural forests.”
Johnson confirms these views: “As long as you don’t [raze natural forest], as long as you’re planting trees on old pastures or agriculture fields, you’re going to probably be a net benefit to the climate.”
Maximizing the diversity of plantation species and the surrounding plant life provides better habitat for native wildlife and prevents the site ecosystem from becoming too fragile.
The impact of hardwood plantations falls all over the spectrum, and at the end of the day it comes down to the choices made by plantation stewards. Amy Smith and the WWF summarize the big picture well: “Plantations can provide environmental services and socio-economic benefits if they are well managed.” This means “any new plantations should be created only on degraded lands while maintaining or restoring natural ecosystems in the surrounding landscape. Also, indigenous peoples’ and workers’ rights should be upheld and protected.”