NATURAL RESOURCES IN THAILAND: MINERALS, TIMBER AND TEAK

NATURAL RESOURCES IN THAILAND

Thailand’s major minerals include fluorite, gypsum, lead, lignite, natural gas, rubber, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. Renewable resources include fish and timber. The tin mining industry has declined sharply since 1985, and Thailand has gradually become a net importer of tin. As of 2003, the main mineral export was gypsum. Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of gypsum after Canada, even though government policy limits gypsum exports to prevent price cutting. In 2003 Thailand produced more than 40 types of minerals with an annual value of about US$740 million. However, more than 80 percent of these minerals were consumed domestically. In September 2003, in order to encourage foreign investment in the mining industry, the government relaxed severe restrictions on mining by foreign companies and reduced mineral royalties payable to the state. [Source: Library of Congress, 2007]

Thailand's mineral reserves had not been well assessed in the 1980s. Mining and quarrying accounted for only a small share of GDP, in 1986 amounting to about 2 percent of the total in real terms. About thirty minerals were exploited commercially, but many were of minor significance. Tin, tungsten, fluorite, and precious stones were important foreign exchange earners in the early 1980s and so, to a lesser extent, was antimony. Minerals of substantial value to the domestic economy included lignite, gypsum, salt (which was also exported), iron ore, lead, manganese, limestone, and marble. [Library of Congress, 1987]

Minerals in Thailand

As of 2003, the main mineral export was gypsum. Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of gypsum after Canada, even though government policy limits gypsum exports to prevent price cutting. [Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Tungsten, an important source of foreign exchange earnings beginning in the early 1970s, was found in the mountains in the North and in the Bilauktaung Range along the Burmese border. In 1970 a major find of the tungsten mineral wolframite was made in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province in the South. Antimony, also an important export, was found in many parts of the country. Mining was carried on almost entirely by small operators, but in the mid-1970s cumulative annual production was about 6 percent of total world output. Fluorite, one of Thailand's principal exports, was mined mainly in the North in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces, where large reserves existed. Relatively large deposits of rock salt of approximately 97 percent purity underlay areas in the Northeast. Reserves were estimated to be at least 2 billion tons. Although having great future export potential, the lack of an adequate transportation infrastructure posed a major problem for exploitation of the rock salt reserves. *

Offering a hopeful promise of a new source of foreign exchange earnings and savings on imports in the 1980s was the long-delayed development of zinc mining and refining. This involved exploitation of a large ore deposit, estimated at 3.5 million tons of 25 percent content, at Mae Sot in Tak Province near the Burmese border. A zinc smelter constructed by a ThaiBelgian consortium began operation in 1984. *

Tantalum is a refractory metal with unique electrical, chemical and physical properties. In the U.S. it used mostly to in the electronics industry, primarily to make tantalum capacitors. There is no tantalum in the U.S. The primary sources of the mental are Australia, Brazil, Canada and Thailand. The U.S. also imports some from Germany. *

Tin

The tin mining industry has declined sharply since 1985, and Thailand has gradually become a net importer of tin. Tin was the leading mineral. The existence of tin in the area of present-day Thailand was known at least by the thirteenth century, when it was alloyed with copper in casting bronze images of the Buddha. In the 1980s, major workings were located in the southern peninsula, although deposits were also found and worked in several other parts of the country. The ore was obtained from onshore alluvial deposits, weathered and disintegrated formations, river beds, and offshore deposits along the seacoasts. [Library of Congress *]

Production of tin concentrates averaged over 29,000 tons annually in the early 1970s, dropped to about 22,000 tons in the mid-1970s, and then rose to 46,000 tons in 1980. By 1985 tin production had dropped to about 23,000 tons as a result of export controls imposed by the International Tin Council and the indefinite closing of a major offshore mining company. The actual output of concentrates in the 1980s was believed to have been at least 10 percent higher than officially reported. *

The additional quantity represented tin concentrates smuggled from the country to escape payment of both business taxes and the statutory royalty deducted from the price paid to the seller by the foreign-controlled Thailand Smelting and Refining Company (THAISARCO). The export of tin ore and concentrates was banned by the government after THAISARCO began smelting tin in 1965 at a newly constructed plant on Phuket Island. Most of the smuggled concentrates originally went to Penang, but this trade had been largely halted by the Malaysian authorities; in the 1980s, the illegal ore was sent to Singapore for smelting. * Illegal Mining and Political Problems Associated with Tin Mining

Since the mid-1970s, the tin-mining industry has generated a large amount of political controversy, social unrest, and illegal activity that continued into the mid-1980s. Onshore mining operations were carried on mostly by small miners who were predominantly Thai. Offshore operations included a number of large dredges owned by both Thai enterprises and foreign firms, as well as thousands of suction boats. Both kinds of operations were supposed to be registered with local provincial authorities. The tin fields had attracted large numbers of the unemployed or persons seeking fortunes, however, who mined illegally. Reports of a new tin strike brought thousands of individuals to the area, resulting in such attendant social problems as claim jumping, forged registration certificates, frequent violence, and the like. [Source: Library of Congress]

In 1975 the government-owned Offshore Mining Organization (OMO) was set up to replace large offshore oil concessions owned by foreign corporations and ousted Thai government leaders. A substantial amount of illegal dredging was also reported in the OMO concession area, whose size and restrictions of exploitation to subconcessionaires had created strong resentment among independent small operators, even though the OMO had given concession rights to a considerable number of them. In late 1979, a group of nonconcession-holding small dredgers pressed the provincial authorities of the area to urge the central government to revoke all restrictions on mining in the OMO holdings. The overall magnitude of illegal operations appeared in the early 1980s to be beyond the ability of the local authorities to control. Official action, moreover, was often deterred by public sympathy for the poor person struggling to eke out a living. *

Thus, illegal mining was an important source of employment in the southern peninsula and, in conjunction with related illegal operations, created numerous ancillary jobs. From the national viewpoint, however, a great loss of natural wealth occurred because of haphazard and inefficient exploitation. Onshore miners, legal and illegal, tended to take out only the readily accessible richer ore, leaving varying amounts of lower grade ore that, mined separately, was uneconomic. Large numbers of small dredges sent divers down to find rich spots that were sucked up, avoiding large nearby areas containing ore that was costly to mine. Many of the dredges also had poor separation equipment, and considerable quantities of ore were lost in the tailings. Because of potential political problems, decisive action by the central government (or provincial governments) to resolve this problem did not appear imminent in the late 1980s. *

Timber and Logging in Thailand

Thailand was once a major exporter of tropical hardwoods and was famous for teak. After logging had seriously hollowed out Thailand’s rain forests, and teak was logged out, the Thai government banned both timber exports and commercial logging in 1989 and now is a net importer. Much of the logging that goes on in Thailand is illegal. Thais have also been heavily involved in illegal logging in Cambodia and Myanmar. See Deforestation Under Environmental Issues, Nature.

In 1985 Thailand officially designated 25 percent of the nation’s land area for protected forests and 15 percent for timber production. Protected forests have been set aside for conservation and recreation, while production forests are available for the forestry industry. Between 1992 and 2001, exports of logs and sawn timber increased from 50,000 cubic meters to 2 million cubic meters per year.

Major exploitation of the highly valuable teak wood for exportation was begun by European interests in the late 1800s, and by 1895 indiscriminate cutting had largely exhausted the more easily workable stands. About this time, the government established a system of control that included leases and cutting cycles (a teak tree takes from 80 to 150 years to mature fully, depending on local soils and weather). By 1909, when controls were further tightened, almost all of the industry was in European hands, mainly British but also Danish and French. During World War II, a Thai company took over all concessions, and although a few were returned to foreign control for a period after the war, the government's long-term goal of full Thai operation was attained in the late 1950s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Although teak had been a major long-term source of foreign exchange earnings, the output by volume of timber from other commercially valuable species was far greater. Thailand had a large number of such species, of which the most commonly exported one was yang, related to the so-called Philippine mahoganies. Others were of great value domestically, supplying the country's general requirements for timber and wood products of various sorts. In the 1980s, however, the forests failed to meet the demand for raw materials for paper and paper products, and these were being imported in growing quantities. Only limited stands of pine existed, and development of a domestic pulp and paper industry appeared to depend on the establishment of suitable forest plantations. *

Even before the ban on logging in 1989 the timber industry in Thailand was in sharp decline. Thailand's export of raw roundwood logs was about $10.4 million in 1977 and has been in decline ever since. In 1988 this had fallen to just over $2 million prior to the ban on exports. Meanwhile, Thailand's imports of raw logs has climbed from $4 million in 1977 to over $80 million in 1988. [Source: TED Case Studies]

Thailand's furniture industry had grown largely due to the teak and rosewood stands that provided cheap raw inputs into making the product. As of 1987, the major furniture export markets for Thailand were the United States, Japan, and France, accounting for about 60 percent of the total. Exports to the United States jumped by 177 percent over 1987/1988, up to $68 million. Singapore and Hong Kong were major re-export sites of Thai furniture products.

Elephants and Logging in Thailand

Although modern logging equipment was in widespread use, difficult terrain and lack of roads in many areas necessitated the use of elephants in logging operations. In 1982 there were 12,000 working elephants in Thailand, including those trained at the Royal Forestry Department's Young Elephant Training Center. [Library of Congress]

Elephants are very important in the teak business. They are skilled professionals that are trained by their Karen mahouts to work alone, in pairs or in teams. One elephant can usually drag a small log on land or several logs through water with the chains that are harnessed to its body. Bigger logs can be rolled by two elephants with their trunks and lifted off the ground by three elephants using their tusks and trunks.

It reportedly takes 15 to 20 years to train an elephant for the logging in the forest. According to Reuters recently captured elephants “methodical, repetitive training methods teach the animals to respond to simple commands over several years. Aged about six, they graduate onto more complex tasks such as piling logs, dragging logs or pushing them up and down hills into streams using their trunks and tusks, before starting full-time work aged around 16-years old.Such animal worth as much as $9,000 a piece, and earn $8 or more for a four-hour day. Female elephants with short tusks are used for pushing things. Males with long tusk are good for logging because their tusks enable them to pick up logs. the tusks get in the way if the push something.

Work elephants used to hoist logs onto trucks that usually carry the logs to rovers, where the logs are float to mills. Men saw teak logs in the water and water buffalo, that kneel on command, pull the logs out of the water and push them onto carts.

Elephants are still used in Burma to move teak logs. Drivers, called oozies, prepared their mounts with a pick-ax-like tool called a choon. If necessary the elephants can be transported from place to place in trucks or trailers pulled by trucks. Elephants used in illegal logging are sometimes brutally used.

Elephants are a good alternative to clear cutting because they can be used to select only the species of tree that are needed, they don't need roads and they can maneuver through all kind of terrain. Because elephants in Thailand may be out of work soon as the teak forests are depleted, I say transfer them to the Pacific northwest were they can used as alternative to the clear cutting used there.

Elephants are cheaper and most frailty than tractors and damaging forest roads. "Instead of hauling away heavy green logs with bulldozers and tractor skidders, which scar erosion-prone hillsides," wrote Sterba, Burma uses elephants to pull their lighter dried logs to rivers on which they float to staging areas for exporting processing." [Source: James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal]

Teak

Teak is the common name for the tropical hardwood tree species Tectona grandis and its wood products. It is one of the most prized and valuable of all woods. Hard, solid, heavy, strong and durable, it comes from a tree native to Asia that grows quickly at first but needs around 50 years to mature before it can be harvested for lumber. It can reach heights of 140 feet, with a 60 foot trunk, and usually grows in catered patches, mixed with dense growth. The word teak comes from the Malayalam word thekku. This tree is mentioned in the seventh-century literature of Tamil popularly known as the Tevaram

Teak is a deciduous tree (which periodically sheds its leaves) with long, rough leaves that can reach two feet in length. At certain times of the year small clusters of white flowers produce had-shelled nuts with four seeds. Teak trees are easily cultivated and grow best in rich soil on the banks of streams.

Tectona grandis is found in a variety of habitats and climatic conditions from arid areas with only 500 mm of rain per year to very moist forests with up to 5,000 mm of rain per year. Typically, though, the annual rainfall in areas where teak grows averages 1,250-1,650 mm with a 3-5 month dry season.

Teak is native to India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia and cultivated in many countries, including those in Africa and the Caribbean. Much of the world's teak is exported by Indonesia and Myanmar. Myanmar accounts for nearly one third of the world's total teak production. There is also a rapidly growing plantation grown market in Central America (Costa Rica) and South America.

Mature teak fetches a very good price. It is grown extensively by forest departments of different states in forest areas. Teak consumption raises a number of environmental concerns, such as the disappearance of rare old-growth teak. However, its popularity has led to growth in sustainable plantation teak production throughout the seasonally dry tropics in forestry plantations. The Forest Stewardship Council offers certification of sustainably grown and harvested teak products. Propagation of teak via tissue culture for plantation purposes is commercially viable. Due to the increasing cost of teak, various alternatives have been employed. These include purpleheart, iroko, and angelique. [Source: Wikipedia]

Characteristics of Teak

Resinous oil give teak its fragrant smell, protect the wood from insects and fungi and give the wood its extraordinary durability. Teak does not warp or crack when seasoned and does not cause nails to rust. Teak used make houses that are several centuries old is still in good condition. Bits of teak over 2000 years old have been found in Indian caves. Because it not very hard teak can be easily worked and can be polished to a golden brown color. It valued for making houses and cabinets and is regarded as the best wood for shipbuilding.

Teak is a yellowish brown timber with good grains and texture. It is used in the manufacture of outdoor furniture, boat decks, and other articles where weather resistance is desired. It is also used for cutting boards, spark-plugs, indoor flooring, countertops and as a veneer for indoor furnishings. [Source: Wikipedia ><]

Teak, though easily worked, can cause severe blunting on edged tools because of the presence of silica in the wood. Teak's natural oils make it useful in exposed locations, and make the timber termite and pest resistant. Teak is durable even when not treated with oil or varnish. Timber cut from old teak trees was once believed to be more durable and harder than plantation grown teak. Studies have shown Plantation teak performs on par with old-growth teak in erosion rate, dimensional stability, warping, and surface checking, but is more susceptible to color change from UV exposure. ><

Growing, Harvesting and Cultivating Teak

Teak trees are usually harvested when the girth of the tree is at least six or eight feet. It is first killed by cutting through the bark and sapwood completely around the trunk. Then the trees is allowed to stand for two or three years until it is dry enough to be floated downstream. Teak that has not been allowed to age is too heavy to float.

The vast majority of commercially harvested teak is grown on teak plantations found in Indonesia and controlled by Perum Perhutani (a state owned forest enterprise) that manages the country's forests. The primary use of teak harvested in Indonesia is in the production of outdoor teak furniture for export. [Source: Wikipedia ><]

Cultivated teak is propagated mainly from seeds. Germination of the seeds involves pretreatment to remove dormancy arising from the thick pericarp. Pretreatment involves alternate wetting and drying of the seed. The seeds are soaked in water for 12 hours and then spread to dry in the sun for 12 hours. This is repeated for 10–14 days and then the seeds are sown in shallow germination beds of coarse peat covered by sand. The seeds then germinate after 15 to 30 days. Clonal propagation of teak has been successfully done thorough grafting, rooted stem cuttings and micro propagation. While bud grafting on to seedling root stock has been the method used for establishing clonal seed orchards that enables assemblage of clones of the superior trees to encourage crossing, rooted stem cuttings and micro propagated plants are being increasingly used around the world for raising clonal plantations. Hyblaea puera, a moth native to southeast Asia, is a teak pest whose caterpillar feeds on teak and other species of trees common in the region.><

Uses of Teak: Food, Furniture and Boats

Teak is a good material for the construction of both indoor and outdoor furniture. Teak's high oil content, strong tensile strength and tight grain makes it particularly suitable for outdoor furniture applications. Over time teak can mature to a silvery-grey finish. Teak is used extensively in India to make doors and window frames, furniture, and columns and beams in old type houses.

Leaves of the teak wood tree are used in making Pellakai gatti (jackfruit dumpling), where batter is poured into a teak leaf and is steamed. This type of usage is found in the coastal district of Udupi in the Tulunadu region in South India. The leaves are also used in gudeg, a dish of young jackfruit made in Central Java, Indonesia, and give the dish its dark brown color.

Teak has been used extensively as a boatbuilding material. In addition to relatively high strength, teak is also highly resistant to rot, fungi and mildew. In addition, teak has a relatively low shrinkage ratio, which makes it excellent for applications where it undergoes periodic changes in moisture. Teak has the unusual properties of being both an excellent structural timber for framing, planking, etc., while at the same time being easily worked, unlike some other similar woods such as purpleheart, and finished to a high degree. For this reason, it is also prized for the trim work on boat interiors. Due to the oily nature of the wood, care must be taken to properly prepare the wood before gluing. [Source: Wikipedia ><]

When used on boats, teak is also very flexible in the finishes that may be applied. One option is to use no finish at all, in which case the wood will naturally weather to a pleasing silver-grey. The wood may also be oiled with a finishing agent such as linseed or tung oil. This results in a pleasant, somewhat bland finish. Finally, teak may also be varnished for a deep, lustrous glow. ><

Teak is also used extensively in boat decks, as it is extremely durable and requires very little maintenance. The teak tends to wear in to the softer 'summer' growth bands first, forming a natural 'non-slip' surface. Any sanding is therefore only damaging. Use of modern cleaning compounds, oils or preservatives will shorten the life of the teak, as it contains natural teak-oil a very small distance below the white surface. Wooden boat experts will only wash the teak with salt water, and re-caulk when needed. This cleans the deck, and prevents it from drying out and the wood shrinking. The salt helps it absorb and retain moisture, and prevents any mildew and algal growth. People with poor knowledge often over-maintain the teak, and drastically shorten its life.><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.