Illicit teak for luxury yachts

Posted on 17 May 2021

Hamburg timber trader sentenced for illegal imports from Myanmar.
The Hamburg district court sentenced the managing director of the timber trading company WOB Timber GmbH and several employees on Tuesday for illegal imports of timber from Myanmar between 2008 and 2011. Over EUR 3.3 million are being recovered from WOB for the teak transactions. The managing director and main defendant Stefan Bührich received a suspended prison sentence of 21 months and a fine of EUR 200,000. WOB and Bührich had imported teak from Myanmar on many occasions between 2008 and 2011, despite European Union (EU) trade sanctions against the Southeast Asian country. Hamburg-based WOB trades in teak, which is used in particular for outfitting luxury yachts.
 
Johannes Zahnen of WWF, whose market analyses set the ball rolling more than ten years ago, welcomed the ruling: “This is probably the largest case of illegal logging in Germany’s post-war history, with Interpol also supporting the Hamburg prosecution. With WOB’s sentence, a timber trader who does not hesitate to destroy forests or does not care to obey international sanctions has now been convicted. This is a good day for environmental protection.”  
 
Indisputable evidence was provided to the court that WOB and Bührich had imported teak from Myanmar on 31 occasions between 2008 and 2011, despite the EU embargo, and had thus violated the Foreign Trade and Payments Act (Außenwirtschaftsgesetz). During the trial, it came to light that WOB had shipped the timber to Germany with a stopover in Taiwan, among other places, to try and deliberately circumvent the embargo. After minimal processing, the origin of the teak was re-declared as Taiwan. Experts consider Myanmar teak to be very high quality and it is extremely sought after in yacht building.
 
In addition to his role as managing director of WOB, Stefan Bührich was also chairman of the Timber Foreign Trade Division at the German Timber Trade Association (GD-Holz) for many years. He was only voted out of office in mid-April 2021 – most likely because of his imminent conviction. WWF considers it to be particularly critical that a subsidiary of DG Timber, in its capacity as a “monitoring organisation”, certifies the compliance of its own member companies with the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). “If the former chairman of the Foreign Trade Association of GD-Holz is convicted of illegal imports, this raises the question of how exactly the association actually applies the law. The suspicion is that the timber traders treat their own favourably," criticises Johannes Zahnen. 
 
According to WWF, the conviction is an important step, but also shows that the problems in the fight against environmental crime, the third most important form of organised crime in the world, lie deeper. Violations of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act are punished more harshly than those committed under the EU Timber Regulation, which is intended to prevent the import of timber from illegal sources into the EU. This is also shown by the current case of the German military ship Gorch Fock, for which illegal teak was most likely imported from Myanmar – after the embargo had expired, but contrary to the requirements of the EUTR.

In expedited proceedings before the Cologne Administrative Court, the Deutscher Naturschutzring, a nature conservation organisation, and WWF are currently trying to compel the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung - BLE) to perform a detailed analysis of the wood. The BLE is responsible for enforcing the Timber Regulation, but has so far failed  doing so.
 
 
Aerial view of forest in Tanintharyi division, Myanmar.
© Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus