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What About Teak? (page 3 of 7)

by Yuri Bihun

Plantation Teak

Plantation Teak
Also on Java, plantation teak after about 25 years.

Extensive plantations of teak were established on the island of Java in Indonesia over a century ago. Originally, most of Java, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, was covered by primary forest. The Dutch East Indies Company began exploiting Java's natural teak stands shortly after its arrival in 1596 to support ship and housing construction. Despite intense agricultural pressure, large stands of primary forest remained intact until several hundred years ago. The pattern of uncontrolled exploitation continued until the close of the nineteenth century when planned and coordinated management was instituted. Kingsley-Bate, Ltd., one of America's leading manufacturers of teak outdoor furniture, was the first American company to use Javanese plantation teak in the manufacture of export-quality, outdoor furniture in the early 1980s.

Many of the major distributors of teak advertise their products as "plantation grown," implying that it does not come from a primary forest and, therefore, does not contribute to the problems associated with tropical deforestation. Because most of the island of Java was cleared for agriculture hundreds of years ago, deforestation and conversion of primary natural forest to plantation is not the central environmental issue. Traditionally, teak plantations are not established from seedlings but planted with teak cuttings called "stumps. " Teak is typically planted at a lower density than other fast growing species to take advantage of traditional agroforestry techniques such as interplanting annual row crops of soybeans or cassava, which are tended by peasant farmers every year until the shade from canopy closure makes further farming impossible. The traditional agroforestry system is called "tungyua" and has been implemented in agricultural development and reforestation projects around the world.

According to Jeff Hayward, forester and SmartWood Asia Pacific Coordinator, there are some environmental issues relating to forest management such as road building, protection of streams and use of pesticides. "However," noted Jeff, after a recent trip to Indonesia, "these are secondary problems associated with plantation grown teak. The primary problem with teak is complex and revolves around issues such as illegal harvesting of teak plantations and the social inequities with the exploitation of teak." According to public relations material, manufacturers and distributors will routinely claim that the Indonesian government allows the felling of a limited number of trees each year, and ensures that an equal amount of reforestation takes place. "This is not quite true," he notes derisively. "The rotation age for plantation teak is relatively long for a tropical species-60- to 80 years." Timber theft," he continues, "by organized syndicates and individuals reduces allowable stocking and introduces social injustice and criminal elements that cast a shadow on the sustainable production of plantation teak."

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