Burmese ‘blood timber’ used at leading UK parks, gardens and tourist attractions

They are among the most well known parks, gardens, race courses and tourist attractions in the country. Few visitors would have any inkling that they could be linked to the turmoil, violence and human rights abuses unfolding in Burma.

But an investigation by Ecostorm has revealed how timber sourced from dwindling Burmese forests under the control of the military junta has been used to construct outdoor furniture and other fixtures for, amongst others, Hyde Park, the Botanical Gardens at Kew, Cheltenham Race Course and the Tower of London.

Some of the UK’s leading suppliers of high-end garden furniture have procured highly valuable Burmese teak wood for use in commissions for park benches, chairs, tables, memorial seats, sun loungers and other fixtures. Other British companies use the controversial timber in the construction of luxury yachts, flooring, kitchen furniture and other products.

Campaigners say revenue gathered from logging and export of timber from Burma’s ecologically important forests is used to bankroll the country’s brutal regime, responsible for the recent bloody crackdown on democracy activists and protesting monks in Rangoon and other cities. The Burmese teak trade has also been linked to killings, forced labour, land grabbing and deforestation elsewhere in the country.

Although a recent move by the EU to impose embargoes on Burmese commodities – including timber – has been broadly welcomed, both pressure groups and timber industry insiders say the flow of Burmese ‘blood timber’ is unlikely to be stemmed. They blame the growing demand and scale of the trade into neighbouring Asian countries, corrupt and inefficient enforcement procedures, poor labelling rules and other fundamental loopholes in the way timber trades are governed.

Teak is strong, heavy and highly sought after for use in the manufacturer of outdoor furniture and in shipbuilding. It grows natively in just a handful of countries – including Thailand, India, Laos and Burma – but over-exploitation has led to depletion of natural teak forests. Thailand was forced to ban the cutting of native teak in 1982 and now has just a small, purpose-planted supply.

Although similar plantations exist in Indonesia and elsewhere, Burmese teak is regarded as being of the highest quality – the country’s exports account for up to 80% of the world’s natural teak supply.
Garden furniture

Ecostorm has learnt that Gloucestershire-based Morton Products Ltd offers a wide slection of garden and other outdoor furniture – including memorial benches – made from Burmese teak and has supplied, amongst others, London’s Hyde Park, Kew Gardens, Cheltenham Race Course and Promenade.

Its partner, Britannic Garden Furniture Ltd, based in Bristol, has supplied fixtures to the Museum of Welsh Life, the Tower of London and Greenwich University. Morton’s claim they work directly in association with Britannic to supply “the finest teak garden furniture available at factory prices”.

One of the most popular Britannic-made benches, ‘The Oxford’, will set you back up to £938, depending on size, and is ideally suited, because of its significant weight, to use in “municipal parks and other public amenity seating”. Another, ‘The Greenwich’, reproduced on behalf of the university to a historical design, costs more than £2000 and is more geared for use as “street furniture, [in] residential homes or hospitals”.

Other companies identified as trading in Burmese timber include Surrey-based NHG Timber Ltd, which offers Burmese teak to both national and international customers “as boards and planks, squares and logs”. Hawkhouse Ltd, based in Gosport, Hampshire, is one of a number of prestigious marine timber specialists catering for the shipbuilding industry and sells “prime Burmese teak” for use in decking for luxury yachts and boats, as does the Bristol-based Robbins Timber, amongst others.

Teak is the first choice for many boat builders – the royal ‘Bloodhound’ a favourite in the Cote d’Zure regatta and the Americas Cup Series, and previously the personal yacht of the Queen and Prince Philip, has recently been restored using Burmese teak, and many other world famous boats, including the Royal Yacht Britannia, have Burmese teak fittings.

Whilst there is no suggestion that these companies are directly involved in any illegality or wrongdoing, the disclosure that they use timber originating in Burma will prove embarassing to their high profile and ordinary customers alike, and raises questions over the effectiveness of both current and planned measures to address controversial timber supplies.

Anna Quenby, spokeswoman for Kew Gardens, admitted to Ecostorm that they have sourced from Morton’s on one occasion in the past, but said new policies were in place that ensured all of their procurements were entirely ethical. Cheltenham Race Course said they “noted” the claims but given the size of their operation, ” the responsibility for ensuring goods supplied to us come from sustainable sources must lie with suppliers.”

Greenwich University said that the institution had changed the specification for supply of ‘Greenwich benches’ to materials which fully comply with the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme since they were last supplied.

The Tower of London and Hyde Park declined to return calls , as did NHG timber and Hawkehouse Ltd. Richard Bagnall for Robbins Timber admitted the company sources “relatively small volumes of teak from Burma” but said this was procured indirectly.

Roger Potter, of Britannic Garden Furniture, told Ecostorm: “There’s a massive demand for Burmese teak. The problem I have is that we are always asked for the best… and the quality of Burmese [teak] is the best in the world by a long way.” Britannic say they deal with timber agents based in Holland and Belgium as well as sawmills inside Burma. The company last year imported at least £100,000 worth of Burmese teak.

Morton’s maintain their Burmese timber “comes from sustainable plantations and registered agents who are supporting anti-smuggling laws run by the Burmese junta, and that all environmental laws are observed. ” Reports compiled inside Burma by pressure group Earth Rights International reveal a different picture in some sections of the Burmese timber industry however.

In Shwegyin township, in Burma’s Nyaunglebin District in eastern Pegu, mining and logging operations sanctioned by the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) – part of the government’s Ministry of Forestry – have been linked to killings, violent attacks and the ongoing harassment of local Karen people, says the group. Virtually all of Burma’s forestry is owned by the government, who take a percentage of timber sales profits.

Problems began when the area was militarised, and have grown since construction of a controversial dam was given the go-ahead. As land upstream of the dam was due to be flooded, rampant logging and other resource extraction was actively encouraged.

In 2006 the Burmese military were redeployed to the region to challenge Karen (an ethnic grouping) control and to open up and maintain fresh timber and mining concessions nearby. Earth Rights International claims that many villagers in the area have been displaced, some hunted down in the nearby mountains and some shot dead.

Others have been forced to pay money to the military, had their crops destroyed, or been coerced into forced labour. ERI claims the Burmese regime as a whole, forestry officials, the military and private companies all profit from the trade in timber from the region whilst local inhabitants are forced to live in increasing poverty.

On the Thai-Burmese border, the trade in timber has been responsible, according to campaigners, for continuing the cycle of armed conflict between the Burmese army and the myriad of insurgent groups operating in the area. All parties have been implicated in the logging of teak as a source of revenue, in some instances funding the purchase of arms and other contraband goods.

Timber from this region primarily feeds Thailand’s growing demand for quality timber, for both domestic use and export. China continues to be the major importer of Burmese timber however, much of it illegally sourced by Chinese logging companies operating inside Burma under the gaze of corrupt Burmese officials.

This trade alone is thought to be worth $250 million annually; overall timber exports from Burma have accounted for as much as 9.3% of the country’s legal foreign exhange earnings in a single year. As a major manufacturing base, Chinese companies have been identified as supplying Burmese teak and teak products to retail markets elsewhere in the world, including the UK.

Britannic’s Potter said he expected China to become the leading supplier of Burmese teak in the future, and told Ecostorm that the EU’s embargo was likely to prove ineffective: “I know that I can buy my teak from India, I can buy it from Thailand, I can buy my timber from China,… thing is it is all Burmese”. He said it was well known within the timber industry that much Burmese teak was being smuggled out of the country and sold onwards.

Although welcoming the renewed pressure on the Burmese authorities offered by the expected EU embargoes, the UK Timber Trade Federation, said they too had encountered examples of teak products being passed off as being of ‘Thai’ origin, even though there is virtually no Thai teak left. “It’s virtually all Burmese” said a spokesman.

Duncan Brack, Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, and an expert on the timber trade, said that current rules governing what manufacturers and exporters have to say publicly about the origination of their products were ineffective:

“If I import logs from Burma, but turn them into a table and chairs in Thailand, I need only say that the product was manufactured in Thailand and make no mention of the sourcing country”. Brack believes that whilst EU sanctions may help to highlight the current crisis unfolding in Burma, in the medium term, only tougher, UN level embargoes – supported by the major trading countries such as China, Thailand and India – could effectively stem the trade in timber coming from the country:

“Beyond that what is really needed is a global licencing system, akin to the Kimberley process (the internationally agreed mechanism for policing the diamond trade) that begins by targeting illegal timber, then moves on to deal with unsustainable timber.”

A version of this investigation appeared in The Big Issue (UK) http://www.bigissue.com