Spotlight on... the King of Timbers: Teak

by 14 lubica
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Living in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica and working for an association of agroforestry and forestry producers called UNAFOR means that from the first day, one is deeply emerged into 'the teak debate'. Raising the key question that everyone seems to answer differently: 'How sustainable is teak?'

For those who are not so familiar with the topic, teak (Tectona grandis) is tropical hardwood specie, native to South and Southeast Asia. Its wood is valued mostly for soft golden colour, strength and durability and became one of the most popular commodities traded worldwide as a premium wood and used for boat building, furniture, carving, house constructions and other wood projects.

Teak plantations worldwide

Teak plantations worldwide
Nowadays, teak is also being grown outside its Asian 'native zones' in plantations in many tropical countries. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2010) (i) estimates that the world teak production reaches up to 2 to 2,5 million m3 per year. Central America's share - 3% of world's teak plantations - represents a relatively small drop in the global market (ii). And yet as the international demand is growing, many landowners see it as a new opportunity for income generation. In just 15 years, the area of teak plantations in Costa Rica increased by 124 % to reach 31 500 hectares in 2010 (iii). For a small country like Costa Rica, that's a lot of teak! Costa Rica belongs to top 5 countries having the highest proportion of planted 'teak forest' in the landscape. (iv)

Teak in Hojancha
The story of teak in Hojancha began with the crisis of cattle ranching and livestock production in the 70s. Many farmers were looking for alternative economic activities as the cattle market soured. That's when planting of various tree species, native and exotic, came into play. Reforestation in Hojancha focused on community conservation and protection of water springs, planting on farms for wood production, establishment of tree nurseries and overall natural regeneration of degraded forests. Up to today, it became one of the main economic activities and created employment opportunities in various areas from seed production, green houses, wood exploitation, sawmills, furniture workshops and artisans.

After plunging into the teak debate in Hojancha, I soon discovered various local voices on the issue. Conservationists would compare teak plantations with primary forests and advocate for native forest restoration, pointing out lower biodiversity and drastic impact of teak on soil and water. 'There is a reason why teak plantations are sometimes referred as 'green deserts!'' Others would define sustainability on the economic criteria of rentability, asking a simple question; is such use of land competitive and rentable in a sense that a farmer will return to plant more teak after the first harvest?

What role does teak play in the livelihoods of rural communities and small farmers? Social and economic considerations are equally important in the wider sustainability debate. Photo: ©CATIE

And somewhere in the center of the discussion, various local organizations and producers' associations strive to provide scientific research, cooperation, capacity building and apply lessons learned to adopt best practice approach (v).

Continuously, people are getting concerned about how to adopt good management practices in teak plantations and innovative methods to reduce the ecological impact. Nowadays, we have more knowledge about silviculture and management of teak. For example, many new practices include mixed plantations to provide better soil cover and stability (vi), combinations with other crops, rotation cycles, agroforestry with teak and keeping patches of natural forest within the plantations to increase biodiversity and maintain ecological functions (vii). Teak plantations also play a role in improving landscape connectivity and mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration.

Hojancha forest producers at a capacity building activity on good silvicultural practices ©CATIE

Nonetheless, big differences in teak plantations and their management continue to exist between various farms and countries and it is therefore important to take into account site-specific conditions and look closely at local circumstances. For example, in Hojancha, small and medium size landowners privately own the majority of teak plantations, which means that it contributes to income generation and livelihoods of many families. The private sector dominates which is not the case in the rest of the world. The three pillars of sustainability; economic, social and environmental are deeply intertwined and so setting the debate on more realistic ground; it is crucial to ask how would farmers alternatively use their land if not growing teak? Many answer for agriculture or livestock ranching.

A local farmer will hardly opt for pure forest protection on his land when the Costa Rican forest law severely restricts the use of natural resources and harvesting in secondary forests. But despite these regulations, many farmers in Hojancha combine various management regimes on their properties, and include areas of protected secondary native forests particularly along watercourses, diverse agriculture as well as teak production zones.

Challenges ahead
When meeting local forest producers for various capacity building activities and workshops, I can't help wondering: where are the youth? Also Hojancha suffers from big migration of the youth to urban areas, driven by the lack of opportunities in rural landscapes.

This challenge also lies at the heart of sustainability discourse because how can we talk about what is sustainable in the future ahead, how can we connect academia with farmers on the ground and decision-makers in the political hubs in a long-term if we do not include future generations in the process?

When the youth will play a decisive role, sustainability will become a reality. Photo ©CATIE

And so local and family producers' associations strive to include the young generation and children of current farmers and producers in all processes. Only when the youth will have the opportunity to participate in all actions, starting from the decision-making, planning with other stakeholders in the landscape, working within the forestry sector, commercializing and creating a well-functioning local, national and international market for forest products, then we can apply good practices on the ground and talk about sustainable future for all.

The biggest hope of many farmers and teak producers is to give their families a better life. Their story is also about shared human values and dreams for better future for their children. Photo ©CATIE

Thus sustainability can only be truly measured through the lens of decisions that young generations will make, based on the opportunities and conditions we are creating now. Now is the right time to mobilize local and family producers to a pro-active role in the transformation of our landscapes to multifunctional areas, integrating sustainable management of agriculture, forestry and rural livelihoods.


i Kollert, W. and Cherubini, L. 2012. Teak resources and market assessment 2010. FAO Planted Forests and Trees Working Paper FP/47/E, Rome. Available at p.16.
ii Ibid., p. 9.
iii Camino, Ronnie de 2013. Las plantaciones de teca en AmŽrica Latina: mitos y realidades / Turrialba, C.R.: CATIE 2013, available at p.32.
iv Kollert, W. and Cherubini, L. 2012. Teak resources and market assessment 2010. FAO Planted Forests and Trees Working Paper FP/47/E, Rome. Available at p.10.
v Schmincke K.-H.: ãPlantaciones de teca en Costa Rica: la experiencia de la empresa Precious WoodsÒ, Unasylva, Vol. 51, 2000, p. 31.
vi Pandey, D. and Brown, C.:ÒTeak: a global overviewÒ, Unasylva, An international journal of forest and forest industries- Vol. 51-2000/2, p. 11.
vii Bermœdez, F: Tectona grandis, p.2


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