It all started with a phone call. At the beginning of 2018, wood importer Roelof B. calls business friend Arthur van der V., who lives in the Czech Republic. There is trouble with the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA), says B. The supervisor has imposed a cease and desist order on him because he imports teak wood from Myanmar. According to the NVWA, this is not allowed according to the European Timber Regulation. And now the regulator doesn’t want to listen to him anymore, he says. Shortly afterwards, the wood from Myanmar to the Netherlands suddenly takes a detour via the Czech Republic, via a new company, in the name of Van der V. “I know him and he always has everything in order”, Van der V. will later tell the court to explain. “No problem, I said. That’s how the fairytale started.” They never expected that the timber importers would end up in the suspect’s bench in a criminal case. They still find it painful that they have been raided, telephone conversations have been tapped, their house, telephones and bills have been seized. And on sea containers full of teak. Importer B. says that his “company has been destroyed by the Dutch government”. Van der V. thinks it is “just ridiculous” and says that “the whole story [of justice, ed.] stinks on all sides”. In recent years, environmental law has become increasingly strict. And with stricter legislation comes enforcement. This week saw the start of the first-ever criminal case based on the European Timber Regulation, which was introduced in 2013 to combat deforestation. The regulation states that imported wood must comply with a number of due care obligations. Market parties must, for example, guarantee that the risk of deforestation in their wood is ‘negligible’. Three Dutchmen (two timber importers and a trader) jointly imported teak from Myanmar via the Czech Republic. According to the Public Prosecution Service, this is a shortcut, a way to consciously avoid criminal law. Since the facts are years ago, the officer on Wednesday did not demand a prison sentence for all three suspects, but a community order of 240 hours. In addition, the officer demands fines of 100,000 euros (of which 50,000 are conditional) for two companies involved. Teak is the “triple A” of the wood, explains a wood trader of the multiple room. Customers pay him 600 to 800 euros per square meter. The golden brown ‘natural product’ is intended for the decks of luxury superyachts. Not only is it stylish, it is also incredibly strong and rich in natural oils. They make it weather and pest resistant. In addition, the chance of slipping is small on teak. “Such a yacht must be from the very hot Caribbean within a month at the North Pole, where it is -30 degrees,” says the trader. “Teak can do that.” Not other types of wood, the officer asks. “On a small deck yes, but not on a large boat. Then it can tear and you can get huge claims.” Also read: Is NVWA doing enough against importers of illegal timber? Myanmar, the defendants say, is the country of the very best, the ‘original’ teak. But the country is suffering from deforestation, the threat to animal species and flooding. According to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) , a forest area that is “larger than Belgium” has now been cleared. Whether the tropical wood that the men imported is ‘wrong wood’, the court will not answer that question. The men themselves see plenty of evidence that their wood was not wrong and that it came from ‘controlled felling’. The paperwork was in order (according to the Myanmar authorities) and they also paid big money to a commercial agency in Singapore to investigate the origin of a batch of wood. The question that does arise is whether the import complies with the European Timber Regulation. This is actually not possible with teak from Myanmar, concluded an expert group of the European Union in 2017. Due to the large-scale corruption in the country, wood from controlled logging mixes with illegally harvested wood. This would make it impossible for these three entrepreneurs to guarantee that their wood is ‘clean’. In 2017, the NVWA imposed an order subject to penalty on importer B.. Not much later B. started his trade with wood importer Van der V., via the Czech Republic. They founded a new one: Fairwind BV. An order that had already been placed through B.’s company (Mercura) was placed in the name of Fairwind. But not B., but Van der V. became the owner of Fairwind on paper. While B. did take on some of the work, and got the login details from Fairwind’s bank account. A third person involved, the trader who inspected the teak, helped to set up the company. The Public Prosecution Service calls Fairwind “an empty shell, only erected for this construction”. Did the trio try to circumvent the NVWA by importing via the Czech Republic? They deny that. B. says he had devised a good system to ensure his wood was safe. But the NVWA no longer wanted to talk to him about a solution, says B., the supervisor no longer responded to anything. The competition also gasped in his neck. “I had my back against the wall.” Then Fairwind was born out of frustration, as an exploration of other possibilities, he says. The Public Prosecution Service is convinced that the importers deliberately wanted to evade supervision by having the wood come via the Czech Republic. There, says the public prosecutor, the capacity for supervision is less great. And the Timber Ordinance is not anchored in criminal law. In addition, Fairwind appears to have been established before the Singapore investigation, which one of the judges said may suggest that the three had already devised the ‘shortcut’ before. According to B., there had been frustrations about the contact with the NVWA from the start, which made him feel excluded and as an ‘entrepreneur in a living trade’ could no longer wait. “I also had financial obligations to sawmills.” Teak trunks from Myanmar in Kolkata in India. Photo Sanjit Das/Bloomberg The Public Prosecution Service acknowledges that the suspects have put a lot of work into their own forest research, but does not consider the documents necessarily reliable, because of the “high degree of corruption in Myanmar”. “Despite all the good work and intentions of the suspects,” the officer said during the hearing. The Singapore investigation related to one batch of timber, which is not part of the indictment. According to B., the research would show that he works according to a good system. It is impossible to have such an investigation carried out on all timber lots, the defence. And that raises the question for the Public Prosecution Service whether you should import teak wood from Myanmar at all. The Public Prosecution Service understands that the men are shocked by their execution. “These are not traditional criminals who go into the drug trade, for example. They feel they are just doing business, but that doesn’t always go the right way. I understand that it feels like you have to appear in front of the fence,” the public prosecutor tells NRC . He also says in court that the Public Prosecution Service “has fully realized” the impact on their lives. Nevertheless, the Public Prosecution Service considers the matter of great importance: “Protecting the environment is becoming an increasingly important topic in the policy of the Public Prosecution Service.” Meanwhile, other teak importers also appear to be choosing other routes to get the hardwood into the Netherlands. The Dutch company Boogaerdt imports its wood via Croatia, where, just like in the Czech Republic, the controls are less strict than in the Netherlands. This was also evident from the report of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). There are plenty of customers for the teak: according to news organization KRO Pointer, the superyacht sector in the Netherlands accounts for a turnover of 1.5 billion euros per year . It will be interesting to see how the court will deal with the principle of a shortcut through another European country. According to conservationist WWF, it is a weakness that countries make very different decisions about how they enforce ‘wrong wood’, and whether they criminalize it. “We are afraid that the import via another European country could act as a shortcut,” says Gijs Breukink, wood expert at conservationist WWF. ‘According to the regulation, the place where the timber is cleared must assess whether it is legal. It seems here that the suspects wanted to use a loophole.” In the coming years, many more companies will be confronted with such legislation, as the EU is about to adopt a new regulation. Trees are not only felled for the wood, but also to create agricultural land. The rules against deforestation will soon apply to all kinds of products, such as soy, coffee and palm oil. “As the Netherlands, we import an awful lot of such products,” says the public prosecutor. “So we also have to look carefully at what we bring into our country, and not leave it to countries that protect and value the environment less.” The case is the first criminal case in Europe based on the Timber Regulation. That makes its importance all the greater, says the officer. He hopes that the punishment will deter entrepreneurs and that other countries will also start criminal cases. In that sense, it is painful that the Public Prosecution Service still comes with a low sentence. Ignoring the European Timber Regulation is punishable by a maximum of 6 years in prison. The officer speaks of “criminal offenses and therefore criminal offenders”, but does take into account that the offenses would have been committed a number of years ago (in 2018 and 2019) with the relatively low sentence requirement. The investigation, including the interrogation of suspects from the Czech Republic and Myanmar, took a lot of time, the Public Prosecution Service says. The defense will issue pleadings in the coming days. The verdict will follow on December 12. A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 13, 2022