Securing Myanmar teak supply chains with DNA

Implementation of a verification system using genetics


In a move to facilitate trade flows for teak exporters in Myanmar, the University of Adelaide and DoubleHelix have launched a project to implement a DNA-based timber verification system for Burmese teak. This system aims to support the Myanmar timber trade in meeting increasingly strict import regulations in the EU and USA.

Supported and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), this project addresses the challenges faced by Burmese teak exporters in meeting the due diligence standards required under the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR). In particular, it addresses concerns raised by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and EU Competent Authorities around the lack of transparency surrounding proof of right to harvest, and chain of custody up to the point of sale (auction) by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE)*. 

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 governments by providing a mechanism for suppliers to demonstrate transparency 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 an obvious advantage compared to other audit and verification methods in that scientific data is 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 based on close collaboration with the University of Adelaide, and through an understanding of industry practices and challenges.

This project will involve two parts: further development of the genetic map of Myanmar teak; and the implementation of a DNA-based verification system within its supply chains.

1. 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) by including samples from additional forest areas in Myanmar as well as neighbouring countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

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

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

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.

2. Developing a verification tool kit

The second part is the development of a tool kit to provide supply chain transparency and differentiation for Myanmar teak.

Independent scientific verification has the potential to be the highest standard in chain of custody control. Creating a tool kit able to provide clear supply chain transparency would give Myanmar teak a clear market advantage, whilst helping to assure the quality associated with Burmese teak. 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 applied to the Prunus africana market in central Africa. By introducing a tool capable of bringing security and control to the supply chain, producer countries may be able to expand CITES quotas and reduce the risk exposure to European buyers.

This verification system will be developed and implemented in parallel with the development 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 source, demonstration of a clear right to harvest, and information that might mitigate risk of harvesting in violation of relevant forestry provisions. This project is expected to be completed in 2018, culminating in the implementation of the DNA-based verification system across several exporters based in Myanmar.  


* These concerns were augmented by the October 2016 publication of the EIA briefing “Overdue Diligence: Teak exports from Myanmar in breach of European rules”; as well as a ruling by the Swedish Administrative Courts on 15 November 2016.