John Lewis among stores 'selling endangered hardwood'

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The Independent Online

An undercover investigation has discovered that British shops and builders' merchants are selling endangered tropical hardwood "stolen" from the forests of Papua, one of the world's remaining wildlife paradises.

Environmental investigators posed as buyers to infiltrate the timber factories that make hardwood flooring, which is replacing oak in fashionable western apartments. Retailers - including John Lewis, one of the most respected names on the high street - sell the hardwood flooring for £80 a metre with the assurance that the timber is culled from sustainable forests.

But armed with hidden cameras, the investigators working for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-governmental organisation backed by the EU, has discovered a depressing reality behind the "sustainable" claims.

According to the EIA, merbau, which is prized for its deep red appearance, is being illegally felled from the Indonesian province of Papua in a free-for-all that threatens the forests, wildlife and indigenous people.

The Independent has been given exclusive access to the EIA report, Behind The Veneer, published today, which alleges that logging companies make use of corruption among local police and officials to fell wood from forests.

Although there is a small supply of merbau wood in Malaysia, almost all the supply of the hardwood is on New Guinea, where illegal logging is rife.

Investigators working with an Indonesian forestry group, Telepak, tested the business claims about the sourcing of merbau flooring during a series of factory visits.

Posing as timber buyers, they visited a factory supplying the Danish firm Junckers, which supplies John Lewis and the builders' merchants Travis Perkins and Jewson.

Junckers, the fourth largest flooring company in the world, buys its merbau from Kim Teck Lee Timber Flooring (KTL) in Malaysia. KTL admitted that 80 to 90 per cent of the merbau originated in Indonesia and an employee specified that the wood came from Papua.

In a visit to another company, Kreasi, the suppliers to the world's biggest wood flooring company, Armstrong, there was an even starker admission. In an exchange caught on camera, Kreasi's marketing director Titin Siswadi admitted the company bought the wood on the open market.

The investigator asked: "So there is no way of proving it was sustainable or legal even?" Mr Siswadi replied: "No, no."

Julian Newman, the head of the forest campaign at EIA, acknowledged suppliers and retailers of merbau flooring were not themselves breaking the law but he added: "They are profiting from an illegal trade and misleading their companies into buying products made from stolen timber. These companies must take urgent steps to ensure the legal origin of their wood."

When The Independent contacted the suppliers and retailers yesterday, they announced that they had launched investigations into what had gone wrong.

John Lewis, which aims to have all its wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, said: "We have taken the precaution to withdraw the product from sale until we can investigate the claims more fully."

Travis Perkins, which has 750 outlets, said it would "follow through" its investigation with any necessary action.

Jewson announced that it would no longer sell merbau flooring products. A spokesman for the chain said: "Jewson is seeking reassurance from both Junckers and Armstrong on the legality of their other products."

Michael Sharkey, the managing director of Junckers UK, said the company believed all its merbau met current guidelines, legislation and certification. He added: "However, since serious allegations have been made against our supplier in Malaysia we shall ... investigate."

Armstrong made no comment.

Saving the tropical forests

* Consumers can play a part in ensuring the survival of tropical forests that are under immense pressure in Indonesia.

Loggers supplying the West's insatiable demand for garden furniture and flooring have already decimated the once emerald-green islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

By choosing carefully which wood they buy in Western shops, the forests of New Guinea may yet be saved.

You should not blindly accept the assurances of the shops about their hardwood. Check the product is legally sourced by looking for the mark of the Forest Stewardship Council, a tree with a tick.

Until Merbau becomes sustainable, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recommends you do not buy it.

On a wider scale, the agency is calling for Governments, including Britain, to license responsible timber companies.

The EIA also wants Indonesia to do more to stop illegal logging, which robs it of around £3bn revenue a year. The indigenous people of Papua Province are being ripped off too - they receive less than 1 per cent of the shop price.