The tough, dark hardwood from the Amazon rainforests is becoming ever scarcer. While logging companies routinely flout Brazil's own laws and controls on the trade, there is hardly any regrowth because mahogany is very difficult to grow in plantations.
Yesterday, the MoD admitted it had purchased more than 200 tonnes of the tropical timber, but said it had seen no ''conclusive'' evidence that it had been cut down and extracted illegally. It admitted that it relied on its supplier's declaration that the wood was produced legally, rather than carrying out its own checks.
The ministry declined to say exactly why the Navy needed mahogany, what ships it would be used for, and why oak - the traditional shipbuilding timber - from sustainable sources in Britain could not be used instead.
''It's very durable and workable, and we use it only for refurbishing decking and sheeting,'' said a spokesman.
But the British government's own view is that the mighty mahogany is in trouble. That is why it pressed last year for exports to be controlled under the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species - even though Britain is one of the world's biggest importers.
Friends of the Earth have sent a report on the illegal logging to the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, following a nine-month investigation in Brazil during which both timber shipments and documents were tracked from forests and Indian reserves.
The MoD's supplier was a UK company, Parker Kislingbury, which in turn purchased the timber from a major Brazilian timber tradery.
Friends of the Earth say their investigation found the Brazilian firm had taken thousands of tonnes more mahogany from forests than it was entitled to under authorisations from the Brazilian environment agency.
Parker Kislingbury's managing director, Ole Salven, insisted his firm had done all it reasonably could to ensure the mahogany was extracted legally. "We've shown due diligence,'' he said.
FoE rainforest campaigner Sarah Tyack said: ''Illegal logging is rife and the whole certification system is completely flakey.''
Given the illegality that surrounds the trade, the MoD should not take any mahogany from Brazil at all, she added.Reuse content