Wooden Woes: Wooden Occasional Furniture Populates Many a Suburban Garden or Patio, but How Much Do We Know about the Origins of the Raw Materials? the Teak Trade Is a Murky Business, and There Are Several Ethical Factors to Consider

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WHEN IT COMES TO STOCKING YOUR GARDEN WITH furniture and accessories, avoiding those huge gas-fired patio heaters, which merrily contribute directly to global warming, may seem like the most obvious ethical decision you need to make--but it certainly isn't the only thing to think about.

While even some of the biggest retail chains have accepted that those heaters--which consume enough energy in an hour to make 400 cups of tea--are a disaster for the environment and have stopped selling them, it's still possible to buy furniture tainted by its attachment to a despotic regime or hacked from irreplaceable old-growth forests. And, indeed, much of the alternative options on sale at garden centres is part of the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap, highly disposable range of plastic products that all too soon wends its weary, inevitable way into landfill.


So what should you consider first? Teak is the traditional wood used for garden furniture. Durable, lightweight and ageing beautifully, this type of timber comes from Southeast Asia--principally Thailand, India, Laos and Myanmar. But overexploitation (it's very popular in the luxury yacht trade and for flooring) has severely depleted natural stocks--Thailand was forced to stop the cutting of native teak in 1982, and now relies on small, specific plantations for its supplies. Unfortunately, the majority of the world's supply--around 80 per cent--now originates in Myanmar.

Despite claims to the contrary, Ecostorm, an international investigative agency that specialises in environmental, human rights and animal welfare issues, has discovered that revenue from the Burmese teak industry is helping to support the country's notoriously bloody and repressive regime. In a report published in November 2007, the organisation claimed that 'the Burmese teak trade has 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,' the report continues. Ecostorm blames 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.

The organisation also showed how widespread the use of Burmese timber is in the UK, with recent clients including Cheltenham racecourse, Hyde Park in London, and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. While some of the companies supplying this timber do watch their producers carefully, most of Myanmar's forests are owned by the government, and pressure group Earth Rights International (ERI) has noted that some of the state's forestry work is conducted amid a climate of fear for locals.

For example, in 2006, the military was redeployed to a region traditionally controlled by the Karen people in order to ensure that the local timber was harvested for the government's benefit. As a result, ERI claims, many villagers in the area have been displaced, and some have been summarily executed.

Unfortunately, the local trade is so corrupt that large quantities of Burmese timber is smuggled out to China, India and Indonesia, where it's then sold on. Recent EU legislation to embargo teak that comes directly from Myanmar is having no effect on this sub-supply. Ecostorm says that trade with China alone is worth 250million [pounds sterling] a year to the Burmese junta.


Mark Comolli, a senior manager in the Forestry Division of the US-based Rainforest Alliance, agrees that consumers should 'stay away from old-growth teak from Burma [Myanmar]; although, even if it's labelled "plantation", you should still be wary. …


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