Britain leads EU imports of wood logged illegally

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Many of Britain's furniture shops, garden centres and building sites are full of illegally logged wood, according to a study that exposes the UK's leading role in Europe in the illicit destruction of the rainforests.

According to research from the WWF, the conservation group, 28 per cent of timber arriving in the UK comes from trees that should still be standing and Britain's imports of illegal wood are higher than any other country in the EU.

Illegal logging causes manifold social and environmental problems, including climate change, lower public revenue, increased corruption, removal of indigenous people from tribal land and habitat loss for endangered animals.

In its report, Failing the Forests: Europe's Illegal Timber Trade, the WWF estimates that the EU is responsible for €3bn (£2bn) of the global €10bn-€15bn in revenue lost to countries of origin. Of Britain's annual imports of about 7.9 million cubic metres of wood, the environmental group believes 2.2 million cubic metres is illegally logged: 600,000 hectares of forest each year - nearly three times the size of Luxembourg.

Only if you include timber and paper made from illegally logged trees (bringing the UK to 2.3 million cubic metres) are there any worse offenders in the EU - Finland and Sweden, responsible for 5.1 million and 2.6 million respectively. Britain's total is 50 per cent higher than Germany's, almost double that of France and four times that of Spain.

The WWF's estimates (no one can be sure) are based on the levels of illegal logging in exporter countries, which can be as high as 80 per cent for countries such as Indonesia, which have widespread corruption. Indonesia accounts for the highest value of wood imports into the EU - about five per cent.

The EU also imports heavily from five other states or regions where there are grave concerns about sustainability: the Amazon basin, Russia, the Baltic states, the Congo basin, and East Africa.

The wood arrives in many forms in the UK, sometimes as logs, as plywood, or as finished products such as garden furniture. However, it is not illegal in Britain to import timber illegally logged abroad.

Instead the EU - under Britain's presidency - is to ratify a voluntary agreement aimed at slowing the level of illegal logging, the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade deal, which will seek new safeguards with individual exporter countries.

The action plan does not cover third countries - such as China, which processes vast amounts of illegal wood from Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea - and also excludes furniture, pulp and paper.

Environmental groups believe Britain should do more to combat illegal logging. Andrew Lee, the WWF's director of campaigns, said: "The UK has made poverty a central plank of its EU presidency yet its consumption of illegal timber is robbing countries such as Cameroon ... of invaluable income.

"Large-scale illegal logging often deprives local communities who rely on forests for their livelihood, while big international companies reap the profits."

In the UK, consumers can make sure their furniture, floors, toys and other goods are legal by buying wood carrying the label of the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC oversees teams of auditors that check forests to ensure trees are being re-planted and the rate of felling is sustainable. Most certified forests are in Europe and North America.

The Timber Trade Association, backs certification, partly because " timber will lose market share" if it cannot improve its reputation.

According to the FSC, leading DIY chains such as Homebase and B&Q have a good record on selling products with the FCS logo - a tree with a tick. But there are still many companies with chequered records.

The building suppliers Wolseley, which owns more than 200 builder's merchants across the country, withdrew illegally logged rainforest timber last month from sale after Greenpeace tracked it from the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, via mills in China.

Nathan Argent, the forest campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "People tend to think all wood on sale here comes from sustainable forests in northern Europe. When you tell them, 'This piece of garden furniture comes from a tropical rainforest in South America' they are often shocked."

Nick Cliffe, the director of the Forest Stewardship Council UK, said: " Look for the FSC mark and if you don't see it walk away."