Taking a look at teak production today and forecasting demand in the future, Latin America has the potential to surpass Asia in teak production. Given a number of contributing factors the author argues that Latin America has what it takes to continue to grow and prosper from it's commercial teak production.
Could it be that Latin America will eventually surpass Asia as the world teak producer? Can tropical American countries rival or even surpass Burma, India and Indonesia as sources of this lucrative species, in the way the British Far East colonies took over from Brazil as the producer of rubber? This happened after Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds from the Amazon to Kew Botanic Gardens in the UK, after which they were sent to Asia in the final decades of the 19th century.
At first glance it may seem impossible. After all, the natural teak forests of Asia cover about 28 million ha in India, Burma, Thailand and Laos. In addition, over 90% of the 3 to 4 million ha of teak plantations worldwide are in Asia. However, all producers of natural forest teak, except Burma, have ceased exploitation. Besides, Burmese teak forests are shrinking, wood quality is declining and the yield is dropping, accelerated by illegal exportation across its northern border into China.
Asian teak plantations are also under stress. Local people are encroaching on Indonesian plantations and illegal timber poaching is also rampant. India`s plantation growth is extremely low; theft in high-population areas is rife and competition for grazing land is relentless. In Africa many teak plantations are being mined rather than being managed properly. In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, teak areas are exploited beyond their annual allowable cut. In summary, we are seeing the consequence of the lack of sustainable management in the traditional teak sector, including both natural forests and plantations.
An important factor to take into account, when considering future supply, is that a large portion of the Asian teak output is non-commercial. The total commercial harvest of teak, most of which currently comes from Asia, is about 3 million cubic metres. Therefore, if Latin America had 300,000 ha of commercial teak, growing on average, at 10 m³/ha/year, this would be sufficient to equal today’s world supply.
The argument can be made that it is eminently possible for Latin American plantations to eventually dominate supply. The area of teak plantations in the region is increasing at around 10,000 ha per year and if that continues, by 2040, it will have the required base on which to produce 3 million cubic metres. Also, with about 100,000 hectares under cultivation now, it can also begin to be the source of large diameter teak well before this date. Besides, few teak growing areas around the world have the potential to expand plantations in a similar way to Latin America.
Some analysts are concerned about flooding the market with teak; but the wider high-grade tropical hardwood sector demand is projected to be 135 million cubic metres by 2050 and a large deficit is forecast. To meet the deficit an estimated area of 10 million ha of hardwood plantations will be needed. Teak has the potential to substitute for these hardwoods and contribute to decreasing the deficit. Unlike teak, few plantation species exhibit its combination of resistance to fungi and termites; few have its durability, quality and strength.
In its home ecosystems in Asia, teak’s familiar pests inhibit growth and quality while in Latin America it is relatively free, as rubber was, from its natural insects and pests. To meet the world’s demand Latin American growers should develop genetic strains that are wind resistant and can be planted at wider spacing, eliminating loss to small, low value diameters in thinnings. Wide spacing would allow agroforestry intercropping and alternative earlier cash flows for improved economic returns, which will attract large-scale institutional investors. Compared to today’s volatile equity markets, teak’s proven value growth is a hedge against recession. Of course social considerations should support the private and community co-development of plantations. Undertaken sustainably, the entire teak sector could function as a developmental mechanism in its own right.
In answer to the question posed above: indeed Latin America holds the potential to become the centre of supply for commercial teak during this millennium in the way that the Far East took over the production of rubber from Brazil last century. Latin Americans will be excused if they see this as an evening up for past disadvantages.
OLAT (the Latin American Teak Organisation) was established in November 2010 to facilitate sectoral development and help investors and growers achieve these sustainability goals.
More information on this topic is provided in R. M. Keogh’s UN online booklet, see:
Raymond M. Keogh is a teak specialist with over 35 years experience with the species in the tropics, during which he worked for community, donor, banking and private sectors. Raymond is the technical director of Tectona G Capital and a founding member of the Organización LatinoAmericana de la Teca (OLAT). He is active in promoting the development of the teak sector in line with the sentiments of this article