Native to the tropics, Tectona grandis is famous for the quality and durability of its hardwood. Teak grain is filled with an abundance of natural oil and silica. While natural oils are common in most trees, what sets teak apart is its ability to retain these properties even after harvesting and processing. These oils provide a natural waterproofing to teak products, also making them largely resistant to dry rot and even termites.

Furniture made from teak wood commands premium prices because it requires little long-term care. As the wood weathers, it settles into a distinct silvery-gray hue, which unlike many wood products does not require oiling and conditioning.

Teak Forests can Restore Essential Landscapes

For Kevin Yardley of Diamond Tropical Hardwoods, teak production is about more than industry—it provides an opportunity for environmental and communal restoration. Historically, Costa Rica has generated some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. After graduating from Harvard University, Yardley decided that the need that fueled deforestation could be met in a sustainable manner, turning the problem into the solution. He decided to use tropical hardwood production to offset environmental degradation in a manner that made entrepreneurial sense, as well as environmental.

In 1992, Diamond Tropical Hardwoods purchased a degraded cattle farm and began planting teak trees. “Teak can create erosion problems so it is best to have different species of trees,” Yardley explains. Diamond diversifies their plantings with more than 70 species, including endangered native species such as cocobolo rosewood, mahogany, Spanish cedar, goncalo alves, granadillo, and mango.

When planting strictly teak, Yardley emphasizes the importance of thinning and pruning. “The trees need to be thinned regularly (every 3 or 4 years) to make certain the canopy is open and the sun hits the ground,” he explains.

Where poor cattle grazing practices have degraded landscapes, the long-term investment of agroforestry can prevent further soil erosion, while also sequestering carbon and providing habitat for wildlife. “We have put in thousands of plants to reverse erosion,” says Yardley. When Hurricane Cesar hit, Yardley’s neighbor’s properties were “hammered,” but his extensive planting of bamboo held down his own river frontage.

One of the challenges Yardley has faced in the teak industry is monitoring and minimizing the pollution of transportation and processing. “Diesel and gas can pollute a lot of ground water. And the disposal of organic waste can be problematic,” he explains. Diamond Hardwoods minimizes this process by utilizing scraps and organic refuse from the milling process to fuel the kiln that dries their harvested wood.

Because the best teak products come from mature trees, time is a major factor in the teak industry. “Trees take decades to grow,” Yardley reminds. If attention is not paid to the health of local communities, governance, and ecosystems, plantations can falter. But for those with foresight and diligence, agroforestry can be the means by which devastated landscapes and communities achieve new growth.

(Read more about Economic Fundamentals and Ongoing Monetary Policy)

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