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Securing Myanmar teak supply chains with DNA

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In a move to facilitate trade flows for teak exporters in Myanmar, the University of Adelaide and Double Helix Tracking Technologies (“DoubleHelix”) have launched the next phase of a project to develop genetic reference data for Burmese teak. When completed, this system will support the Myanmar timber trade to meet increasingly strict import regulations in the European Union, USA and Australia, by using DNA tests to confirm the origin of harvest stated in government documentation.

This project is supported and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and carried out with local partners: Ecosystem Conservation and Community Development Initiative (ECCDI) and the Myanmar Forest Department (part of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry).  

The Value of Verifying Myanmar Teak

Teak is one of the most commercially important timbers in the world, and its durable and water resistant wood is used for boat building, exterior construction, veneer, carving, turnings, and for furniture manufacture.

Teak logs with stamps and markings

Teak logs with stamps and markings

In Myanmar, currently almost all teak comes from natural forests. As one of the few remaining natural stands of quality teak, there is much value in both the material itself as well as the “brand” of Myanmar teak.

While logs are stamped to identify forest of origin, over-harvesting and mixing of logs from different forest areas are common practices. This project seeks to remove doubt about timber origin, to create certainty for industry and consumers, open markets for Myanmar timber and increase revenue for legal timber traders and the government by providing a mechanism for suppliers to demonstrate transparency and assurance to the global market.

A scientific approach to timber verification

Verification of timber and timber product claims is a fundamental part of assessing and controlling the risk of illegal timber entering legitimate supply chains. DNA and other scientific testing methods have a clear advantage over other audit and verification methods in that they are truly independent from documentation claims and cannot be manipulated.

DoubleHelix has driven the development and practical implementation of DNA traceability systems for the timber sector in close collaboration with the University of Adelaide, and through an understanding of trade practices and challenges built up through years of industry experience and local partnerships.

This project will involve two parts: further development of the genetic map of Myanmar teak; and engagement with existing or planned timber legality assurance initiatives within which DNA verification can be applied. 

Building on existing genetic research

The first part of this project is the enhancement of a genetic map of teak forests in Myanmar (Figure 1, below) which was developed under previous ACIAR-backed projects (FST/2014/028 and FST/2015/007). This phase will include samples from additional forest areas in Myanmar as well as other teak producing countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

In the previous project, DNA of teak collected from around Myanmar was analysed, producing a suite of genetic markers to determine the regional origin of teak in Myanmar. Based on this genetic analysis, the ability to correctly assign a region of origin to samples of unknown origin was between 91% and 97%.

“With further development to improve resolution and geographic breadth, these markers can be applied to verify chain of custody in teak supply chains and identify likely sources of origin to confirm legality and build trust in the Myanmar teak brand,” said Professor Andrew Lowe, Chair of Plant Conservation Biology and Director of the Centre for Conservation Science and Technology,
at the University of Adelaide.

Integration with timber legality initiatives

Fig. 1: Distribution of four genetic clusters of teak in Myanmar

Fig. 1: Distribution of four genetic clusters of teak in Myanmar

The second part is to identify and engage with other timber legality initiatives taking place in Myanmar. Independent scientific verification has the potential to be the highest standard in chain of custody control. Combined with other initiatives to improve forest management and governance, this would give Myanmar teak a clear market advantage. Consumers looking for teak that meets their respective timber regulations (Australian ILPA, US Lacey Act and the EUTR) will be able to view Myanmar teak as low risk and therefore favourable, expanding Myanmar’s market access.

An analogous example of this can be seen in the DNA verification system currently being developed to verify the authenticity of CITES permits for Prunus africana in central Africa. By introducing a tool capable of verifying that Prunus is harvested only from authorised forest areas, producer countries may be able to expand CITES quotas and reduce the risk exposure to European buyers.

In Myanmar, the intention is to develop and implement a DNA verification system in parallel with the establishment of Myanmar’s timber certification system and ongoing FLEGT VPA negotiations. A certification or legality system is only as strong as its ability to enforce the standards it promotes, and DNA provides a credible and independent method for monitoring and enforcement by verifying claims pertaining to forest of origin.

This phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2018.