Scottish ‘misled over seal hunt fur’

Seal skins from the controversial Canadian hunts are being sold in Scotland to make sporrans – traditional decorative items popular with tourists and as fancy dress – and buyers are being misled about their origin, an investigation by Ecostorm for Sky News and IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has revealed.

During the inquiry, investigators discovered that customers in some Scottish shops are told the fur used to decorate the traditional Scottish garment comes from Greenland and is a by-product of a hunt where the seals are killed for food. But the investigation – broadcast by Sky News – has revealed the truth: the skins come from animals slaughtered purely for their fur.

To watch the film and read the report see:,,30000-1317653,00.htm

Ecostorm joins forces with The Ecologist magazine to form specialist film unit

ecofilmunitlogo1-e1362746428673In a major new venture, Ecostorm has teamed up with The Ecologist magazine, the world’s most widely read environmental magazine, to launch the Ecologist Film Unit (EFU), which will make hard-hitting, investigative films to be streamed on the internet, broadcast on TV and at film festivals and events.

Building on the Ecologist’s reputation for agenda setting reporting on environmental issues and Ecostorm’s investigative film production skills, the EFU will make documentary films that lift the lid on a host of unreported environmental scandals that will shock viewers out of any misplaced complacency that the planet’s problems can be solved simply by switching light bulbs and more recycling!

The EFU’s debut is “Hell For Leather”, an investigation which examines the appalling, and unpublicised human and environmental cost of the leather trade in Southern Asia (see seperate news release).

“The EFU will take the kind of leading edge environmental reporting we are known for to a much wider and more diverse audience, in a much more immediate way. Ecologist editor, Pat Thomas, said. “It will also offer an antidote to the kind of ‘tick-box’ environmental reporting of some mainstream news and provide a model of how print and online media can work effectively together to drive change”.

“The launch of the EFU is an exciting move for the Ecologist” said publisher Jemima Ransome “The world wide web is fuelling a new grassroots environmental activism that the Ecologist believes will be crucial in motivating widespread and meaningful action. At the same time it is also an invaluable medium for engaging a new, younger audience with environmental issues – important since they are the future caretakers of our planet”.

The EFU is currently working on a number of exciting follow ups to “Hell For Leather”, for release later in 2008, and is actively seeking commissions from television news outfits.

Jailing of Chinese campaigner highlights dangers of web activism

The jailing of Chinese human rights and democracy activist Hu Jia for subversion after posting articles critical of the Chinese regime on the Internet highlights, say campaigners, the increasing dangers facing activists using the net in many countries across the world.

A recent Ecostorm report, The Price of Dissent, disturbingly revealed how campaigners and journalists in, amongst others, China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, face serious persecution for using the net to distribute material deemed as unacceptable by the ruling authorities.

Several pressure groups, including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty, have launched campaigns dedicated to exposing and tackling the problem.

The news of Hu Jia’s imprisonment for three and a half years comes as a new report by Amnesty International today exposes China’s appalling – and current – human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere in the country. Campaigners are critical of much of the international community – and of the organisers and participants of the forthcoming Olympic Games – for turning a blind eye to the situation as the athletic games approach.

For Reporters Without Borders Internet Enemies campaign, see:

For the Amnesty report on China’s human rights record see:

Index On Censorship

Indonesia: new film highlights health risks of country’s wet markets

An investigative film produced by Indonesian pressure group Yudisthira – and Ecostorm – examining the health risks posed by the country’s numerous wet ‘poultry’ markets has been presented to the Indonesian government as part of a new public awareness campaign designed to highlight the links between the spread of diseases such as avian influenza and poor farming practices.

The film, created from footage obtained during undercover investigations carried out in Bali and Java, was produced as part of a pilot training programme commissioned by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and includes graphic evidence of poor animal welfare conditions and of the associated threats posed to human health.

Indonesian wet markets traditionally sell live animals out in the open. Depending on the region, animals are often caged and killed onsite for preparation. The wet markets have been frequently linked to the country’s ongoing risk from the deadly H5N1 version of avian influenza, which has so far claimed in excess of 100 lives in the country.

During a ten day Ecostorm training programme, Yudisthira campaigners received instruction in operating PD150 broadcast cameras, covert cameras, shooting basic sequences for editing, planning investigations and onsite filming, carrying out on-camera interviews, writing storyboards, and logging footage. Then, in a joint field investigation, the footage and information needed to make an effective campaign film was gathered.

Yudisthira, an active member of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) -led Asian Coalition for Farm Animals (ACFA), is currently working on a two-part advocacy campaign consisting of an assessment of poultry welfare in the wet markets of Java and an assessment of antibiotic residues in broiler chicken meat sold in the wet markets of Denpasar, Bali.

Ecostorm carried out investigative and broadcast film trainings in four countries during 2007, with three more currently planned for 2008.

For more information see:

Inside China’s “cruel and violent” trade in live dogs

An investigation into China’s trade in live dogs to feed the country’s demand for dog meat, regarded as a delicacy by many consumers, has been released in the run up to the forthcoming Olympic Games. The investigation, carried out by Ecostorm on behalf of pressure group One Voice, revealed shocking images and information never before seen by much of the outside world.

For a Sky News report on the investigation see:,,91266-1308739,00.html

For the full One Voice report, video and photos see:

Revealed: the global trade in livestock that threatens welfare, environment and human health

There’s a global trade in live farm animals taking place – a secretive and dirty business that sees millions of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and other species trucked and shipped around the world for slaughter and processing, retail and consumption.

Fuelled by the growing demand for cheap meat and meat by-products, and enabled by increasingly intensive agricultural production, this largely unreported trade not only raises serious concerns about the welfare of the transported animals, but poses much wider questions about the nature and sustainability of modern food supply and production.

Advocates of the trade claim they are simply feeding consumer demand, and that the sector is well governed, provides much needed employment and vital income, ensures regional food security and consistently maintain that welfare standards are generally high.

But in an unprecedented global operation, Ecostorm investigators, working on behalf of the Handle With Care coalition – a body made up of some of the world’s leading animal welfare pressure groups – travelled to over a dozen countries in six continents to examine the true cost of this lucrative trade to animals, people and the environment.

Working undercover and utilising a variety of unique research techniques, Ecostorm investigators tracked shipments of farm animals from Canada to Hawaii, Brazil to Lebanon, Spain to Italy, India to Bangladesh, Australia to the Middle East, Namibia and Botswana to South Africa, as well as within Thailand, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere.

The investigations, documented in a unique series of specially commissioned campaign films and cinema adverts, graphically uncover the often shocking conditions endured by millions of farm animals annually as they are transported hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from one country to another.

Evidence obtained by investigators also exposes the negative impacts of the industry on the environment – particularly in Brazil where cattle ranching has been identified as a major cause of deforestation – and on people, especially the now near-universal plight of small-scale traditional farmers squeezed out of the market by the increasingly globalised trade in livestock.

Compelling evidence of the potential spread of animal / human diseases as a result of the trade is also revealed: in Thailand, the links between the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza and the movement of live poultry are highlighted; in Bangladesh, the thriving yet illegal trade in cattle from India is revealed as being partly responsible for the spreading of foot and mouth disease in the region.

Britain too plays a role in this global trade, with thousands of animals a year typically exported to Europe for rearing, slaughter, processing and consumption. Many of these are young calves transported principally to the Netherlands, France, Spain and elsewhere for veal production. Although restrictions in place following last year’s foot and mouth outbreaks temporarily curtailed the trade, exports of live farm animals from the UK are expected to resume imminently.

By documenting the typical international supply chains of certain meat and meat products – literally from ‘crate to plate’ – and approaching, for the first time, the subject of live farm animal transport as an issue of globalisation as well as animal welfare, the investigations and campaign films present strong visual and other evidence which show that this trade, in its current form, is both unacceptable and unsustainable.

To view the films, photos, campaign reports and other background material visit or

Leading retailers pull Dutch veal after investigation reveals “cruel” conditions

Secret film obtained by Ecostorm in conjunction with campaign group Compassion In World Farming has resulted in several leading UK retailers – including top London department store Selfridges – to cease selling speciality veal meat from Holland.

The footage, obtained at contract farms supplying ESA and imported by Smithfield Market-based JF Edwards and Son, revealed Dutch calves being kept in barren and narrow cages that campaigners have claimed may have breached EU legislation banning veal crates, which keep the meat tender by preventing the animals developing muscle. They were banned in the UK in 1990.

CIWF’s chief policy adviser, Peter Stevenson, commented on the findings: “Apart from the legal aspects, I feel the systems shown are desperately impoverished. They represent a cynical ‘what’s the least we can get away with’ attitude rather than a genuine attempt to provide good animal welfare.”

External Links

The Independent’s (UK) coverage of the investigation
Footage from the investigation featured on the BBC Six O’Clock News

The price of dissent – investigation

As the bloody crackdown on Burmese democracy activists unfolded earlier this year, the world was able to watch thanks to the Internet and other modern technologies used to disseminate eyewitness accounts, photos and video clips.

The military junta’s attempt to impose a blackout on news of the turmoil taking place inside Burma resulted in most foreign media, particular television, being forced to rely on these dispatches from so-called ‘citizen journalists’.

In common with those organising and participating in the demostrations, those reporting on the uprising faced grave danger of arrest, imprisonment , torture and worse. A number of journalists were attacked, harassed or detained by the security forces during the crisis and at least one – the Japanese video reporter Kenji Nagai – was killed, almost certainly by the gun of a Burmese soldier.

Anyone, journalist or campaigner, caught taking photos, video – or crucially – accessing and uploading information onto the Internet faced an immediate, brutal beating and arbitrary arrest.

As the ’saffron uprising’ continued, the Burmese authorities shut down the country’s main Internet server, closed Internet cafes and severed mobile phone and landline connections in an attempt to stem the wave of electronically transmitted evidence of the atrocities taking place in Rangoon and beyond.

But Burma is not the only country where the Internet has become the frontline of the struggle against human rights abuses and for freedom of expression, or where using such technology carries a deadly risk.
Forced labour

Activists and journalists in China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, amongst others, face persecution for using the net to distribute material deemed unacceptable by the ruling authorities. Such is the extent of the problem that Amnesty last year launched a major global campaign to highlight and tackle the issue.

The group used the case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist sentenced to ten years imprisonment for ‘ illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities’, to launch and expose the scale and severity of Internet repression.

Tao’s crime had amounted to emailing a US campaigning group about Chinese government warnings to news jourrnalists not to cover protests marking the anniversary of the Tiannamon Square massacre. According to Amnesty, Tao has been sent to a forced labour camp to carry out his sentence, and his wife and family harassed and threatened by state officials.

Part of the reason for such harsh repression of those using the Internet for information and awareness raising, say campaigners, is that oppressive regimes such as in China realise the potential power such technologies provide to dissenters and ordinary people alike.

“The internet has become one of the [most important] new tools for activists involved in non-violent resistance – alongside other technologies like mobile phones and desktop publishing,” Matthew Collin, author and specialist on youth and democracy movements, told Ecostorm.

“They use it to promote their message, to network and organise clandestinely, and to evade censorship and communicate with the world in situations where the government controls the media or shuts down alternative outlets.”

Over the last decade, the Internet has indeed radically transformed the nature of activism and campaigning and, correspondingly, resulted in widespread but under-reported human rights abuses.

An early example of the Internet being successfully used by activists came when Mexican peasant group the Zapatistas used email and websites to alert the world to government troops’ violent assaults on peasant held land, in the mid-nineties.

The Zapatistas actions not only garnered unprecedented international support that pressured the Mexican authorities to cease their attacks, they, for the first time, dramatically linked up a powerful mix of activists from both first and third world nations.

In the Balkans, during the Kosovo war in 1999, Father Sava Janjic, Archdeacon of Kosovo’s Decani Monastery, caused a similar stir after his constant email dispatches from inside the conflict zone uniquely galvanised opposition to war from a surprisingly diverse range of people and political groupings.

Dubbed the ‘cybermonk’, Fr Sava had shown – as the Zapatistas, and similar resistance groups in East Timor, Indonesia and Brazil had done so previously – how the relatively new medium of the Internet could be used to reach out to huge new audiences at the touch of a button, with dramatic results.

In the following months, as NATO planes bombed Serbia, the Internet also became a vital lifeline to the outside world for anti-Milosevic campaigners after independent radio station B92 was forced to broadcast online as the Belgrade authorities moved to close down transmissions.

Similarly, youth resistance group Otpor – widely recognised for helping to destabilise the Milosevic regime from inside Serbia – successully used the Internet, email and text messages to help organise opposition actions against Belgrade’s rule following the conflict, often in the face of brutal reprisal’s from the Serbian security forces.

Otpor’s pioneering use of the Internet also saw the dissemination of rare pictures and information from inside the closed country to the outside world and is credited with inspiring democracy movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the years following Milosevic’s fall from power.

In the build up to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, youth resistance groups used a website named Maidan to post leaked information and documents from government sources – encouraging anger and further dissent – and for organising so-called ‘flashmob’ instant protests.

In Belarus, prior to the presidential elections in 2006, one youth movement used similar methods in an attempt to oust the government – but was raided by the authorities, its computers seized and website closed down.

Although the use of the Internet and other modern communication technologies by pro-democracy activists is widely documented, commentators are keen to point out that others, with less democratic ideals, have also been quick to utlise the net .
Counter activism

Matthew Collin highlights one such instance: “In Kyrgyzstan, before their uprising, a youth resistance group discovered that government loyalists had created a similar website to theirs, with a similar name, but full of pro-government propaganda. It was a canny trick to try and undermine them.”

Similar games are currently being played out online by pro and anti Serbian groups over the future of the disputed territory of Kosovo.

As first uncovered by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and – the first set up by the American Council for Kosova and the second by the American Council for Kosovo – are virtually identical websites.

But despite similar layouts and overall design, the content of the two portals is radically different. One supports independence for Kosovo and the second backs continued Serbian rule over the region. To add to the potential confusion for web users, both sites use global paranoia about Islamic terrorism as an argument.

Such ’smoke and mirrors’ campaigning by activists over the Internet is not unique to Eastern Europe. In the US anti-activist websites such as, created by the Centre for Consumer Freedom, have sprung up to counter the growing popularity of environmental, safe food and animal rights organisations all using the web to expand their supporter base.

Such counter initiatives began to appear following the rise of online activist news services such as Indymedia. The portal, which now has numerous editions in dozens of countries globally, grew out of the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, London and Genoa, and provides what activists describe as “an antidote to the mainstream media.”

Indymedia enabled, for the first time in an semi-professional fashion, campaigners and citizen journalists from virtually any viewpoint or pressure group to upload and publish online reportage, comment, photographs and video – bypassing what they saw as official censorship and misrepresentation by the mainstream media.

In the UK, the Undercurrents video news network was at the centre of efforts by activists, particularly road protesters, hunt saboteurs, anti GM and arms trade campaigners, to use video on the Internet to expose and highlight environmental, animal welfare and human rights abuses.

Larger, less grassroots, campaigning organisations have too utilised the Internet to advance their positions. Greenpeace was amongst the first to fully explore the potential of e-campaigning, encouraging its members to lobby government and business leaders about ecological destruction via email.

In the US, the WildAid organisation – which has the single aim of ending the global illegal trade in wildlife – successfully pioneered the use of the Internet to deliver high (TV) quality video adverts, or Public Service Announcements, to an audience of millions.

With the advent of so-called web.2 technology, new, interactive and highly populist web portals including Facebook, You Tube and MySpace have also assisted, in varying capacities, in disseminating the messages and activities of activist and pressure groups. At one stage, You Tube was carrying over fifty different clips during the recent Burmese uprising.

Although US and European activists involved in utlising the Internet for change have been targeted – Otpor members were brutally assaulted and imprisoned by Serbian police, and Indymedia reporters attacked in a notorious raid during the Genoa protests in 2001 – it is campaigners and reporters elsewhere in the world who have, and are, sufffering some of the most serious repression.
Hunger strikes

In June this year, Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Vu Binh was finally released from the country’s Ba Sao prison after serving five years of a seven year sentence for using the Internet to criticise the Communist authorities and being convicted of ’spying’.

A former journalist, Vu Binh was also planning to set up a new political party in Vietnam, which is illegal as the communist authorities state that only one political party is allowed.

Although the Vietnamese government was praised for releasing Vu Binh early, campaigners point out that at least eight other political and ‘cyber’ activists have been jailed recently for ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ .

Similarly, in Tunisia, human rights activist Mohammed Abbou was released from prison earlier this year after being punished for publishing several news articles critical of the Tunisian authorities on the Internet. Abbou was forced to carry out hunger strikes to help highlight his position and was reportedly harassed and ill treated during his detention.

In Jordan, Ahmad Oweidi, a scholar and political activist, was recently imprisioned for ‘heading an illegal organization, harming the government’s reputation and violating the country’s e-mail laws’ after sending e-mails discussing alleged corruption and human rights violations in Jordan to officials and newspapers.

Many other dissident voices who’ve exploited the Internet remain in prison globally.

In China particularly, dozens of activists charged with offences arising from using the Internet to further their opinions and causes are currently in prison – or in hiding – after repeated crackdowns by the authorities on Internet freedoms. Amnesty says China and Vietnam head the list of countries most heavily involved in Internet repression.

But it is not only such direct targeting of individuals, say campaigners, that poses a risk to Internet freedom. According to the Open Net Initiative (ONI), a project that aims to document global patterns of Internet content filtering and surveillance behind national firewalls, many governments are secretly blocking web sites containing content deemed unsuitable and some are attempting to avoid widespread Internet use in general.

In Iran, for example, g-mail and Facebook have been periodically unavailable after being ’switched off’ by the authorities; in China, many external sites – particularly those carrying evidence of human rights abuses inside the country including Tibet – are simply unavailable. A similar situation exists in Burma and several central Asian countries, amongst others. In some, such as Turkmenistan, the number of Internet users is minimal.

Ian Brown, an ONI researcher based at Oxford University, told Ecostorm: “For many governments the Internet as a whole represents economic potential so they are keen in general, it is more of a case of controlling what [users] see rather than trying to curtail its usage completely.”

Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen argues that unless action is taken on a global scale to highlight all forms of Internet repression – covert and overt – there is a danger of the world creating two Internets, “one that is an arena for free and peaceful exhange of ideas, and another that is a tool for repression.”

A version of this report appears in Index On Censorship

Burma’s environmental pillage

The Burmese Junta, responsible for the brutal crackdown on recent protests against the authorities’ decision to hike fuel prices at a time of worsening economic conditions, is bankrolling its regime by systematically exploiting the country’s vast natural resources at the expense of the Burmese people and environment.

Oil, gas, gold and timber – amongst other commodities – are being ruthlessly sought out for extraction, sale and export abroad, often with the help of complicit foreign companies. According to campaigners, the trade in these natural resources has been linked to serious human rights and environmental abuses, including killings, forced labour,deforestation, pollution, land grabbing and compulsory relocation.

The trade in Burmese timber has been particularly responsible, say pressure groups, for a disturbing number of violations and, in some cases, accused of being directly to blame for perpetuating armed conflicts and insurgency inside the country. Much of the timber coming out of Burma is being exported to China and other Asian manufacturing hubs before finding its way onto the high streets of Europe and beyond.

Highly valuable Burmese teak and other hardwood is used in all manner of products from garden furniture to decking for luxury yachts. Ecostorm found a number of UK companies openly selling teak from Burma despite accusations from environmentalists that this trade in ‘blood timber’ is unacceptable.

Campaigners argue that despite large profits being made by the Burmese Junta, and timber suppliers, manufacturers and retailers, little or none of this wealth is filtering back to the Burmese people. They are calling on companies and governments to cease doing business with the Burmese regime to help severe the revenue gained from these unsustainable trades.

Although images and reports of the recent protests and subsequent crackdown were seen around the world and helped to reignite global interest in south Asia’s ‘forgotten’ country, critics say the ruthless exploitation of the country’s resources – and the involvement of outsiders – has been woefully under-reported.

Human rights violations

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, according to campaigners.

Problems initially began back in the 1990s when the area was first militarised, but have grown acutely since construction of a controversial and 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.

According to US advocacy group Earth Rights International (ERI), in 2006 the Burmese military were redeployed to the region to challenge Karen control and to open up and maintain fresh timber and mining concessions nearby. The group claims that many villagers in the area have been displaced, with some reportedly hunted down in the nearby mountains and shot onsite.

Others have reportedly been forced to pay money to the military, had their crops and other food sources destroyed, and been coerced into forced labour. Investigations by ERI have revealed how 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.

The MTE has contracted out much of the logging operations in the region to private companies, on condition that at least 35% of the logs are sold back to them, for onward sale and profit. The military itself, along with local militias, has been accused in turn of demanding ‘protection money’ from subcontractors employed to physically undertake the logging.

After being chopped, the logs are hauled through the forest and loaded onto boats or trucks for transport to sawmills. The timber is then purchased for use internally or export abroad. Campaigners fear that once all the forest in the immediate vicinity has been stripped, the military, closely followed by forestry officials and logging companies, will move into adjacent, largely untouched areas, and begin the cycle of destruction again.

“The situation [in Shwegyin township] is pretty dire – there’s virtually nothing left, the logging companies, and the mining companies, and just about everybody else has stripped the place bare,” one Bangkok-based activist told Ecostorm, ” the worst thing is that this is being repeated all over Burma.”

East of Pegu Division, on the Thai-Burmese border, the trade in timber has been equally rife, and 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 reportedly funding the purchase of arms and other contraband goods.

China continues to be another major importer of Burmese timber however, much of it illegally sourced by Chinese logging companies operating inside Burma under the gaze of corrupt 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 exchange earnings in a single year.

Global Witness, which first raised the alarm about the role played by timber in perpetuating conflict – the group highlighted in 1995 how the Kymer Rouge were trading timber to fund its murderous regime in Cambodia – argues that the continued logging of Burmese forests jeopardises any chance of peace or sustainable development in the country.

As a major manufacturing base, Chinese companies have been identified as supplying Burmese teak and teak products to retail markets elsewhere in the world. In the UK, despite vigorous campaigns by activists, Ecostorm has discovered that a number of timber firms continue to sell teak from Burma.

NHG Timber Ltd, based in Sanderstead, Surrey, offers Burmese hardwood for sale as planks, boards and logs; marine specialists Hawke House, based in Gosport, Hampshire, uses Burmese teak for decking destined for use in the manufacturer of luxury yachts; and the Oxfordshire-based Timbnet has previously retailed sawn teak amongst other hardwoods. Pressure groups say that furniture made from Burmese teak is frequently found for sale in both specialist and high street stories.

Whilst there is no suggestion that these – or other – companies are directly involved in any illegality or wrongdoing, campaigners argue that anyone doing business with Burma is contributing to the suffering of the country’s people and environment: “Companies trading in goods and commodities such as oil, gas, timber, gems and clothing are directly or indirectly helping keep the regime in power,” a spokesperson for the Burma Campaign UK, told Ecostorm.

The group is not calling for a complete boycott of Burma, but targeted economic sanctions that they believe will help cut the economic lifeline to the Burmese government.

Democracy activists, students and journalists inside Burma continue to face persecution for organising, participating or reporting on the recent dissent against the increase in fuel prices. Safely investigating the role natural resources are playing in propping up the regime is virtually impossible internally. But, say campaigners, the outside world has a duty to highlight those playing a part in legitimising the Burmese Junta by doing business with it.

A version of this report appears in Index On Censorship

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)

Secret film reveals reality of China’s ‘wildlife parks’ and zoos

An Ecostorm investigation carried out in China on behalf of pressure group One Voice has revealed the appalling conditions and widespread cruelty endured by captive wildlife – including the endangered tiger, bears and monkeys – at a number of the country’s leading ‘wildlife parks’ and zoos. Shocking secret film obtained at eight such establishments prompted a special report by the Daily Mail (UK) newspaper and further coverage in France and beyond. The evidence is being used by campaigners to strengthen calls for animal protection laws to be introduced in China ahead of the forthcoming Olympic games. Animals in China currently have little protection in law.

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