Pat Venditti: Why buying Burmese timber spells ecological disaster

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The revelation that Burmese timber is being sold openly at the Chelsea Flower Show should ruffle a few bushes in Vincent Square, home of the Royal Horticultural Society. Its annual extravaganza of flora and fauna is the most famous celebration of gardening in the world, with the power to set trends for a global industry. By not vigorously preventing exhibitors from peddling furniture from Burma, the RHS has played an unwitting role in the suffering of that country's people and contributed to an environmental crisis that has left unique eco-systems at the mercy of chainsaws.

Burma is the only country that still exports teak from virgin natural forests. Timber exports account for a significant percentage of its total export earnings, providing a key source of revenue for one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world. Illegal logging in ancient rainforests along Burma's border is widespread, with much of that timber going into China and Thailand to be made into furniture, flooring and veneers. Now we discover that the chain of destruction ends just off the Chelsea Embankment in west London.

Burma is ruled by a brutal junta, General Than Shwe's State Peace and Development Council, which has been charged by the UN with a crime against humanity for its systematic abuses of human rights. Timber revenue and control of the trade on the border has enabled the armed ethnic opposition to finance their side of the conflict as countries such as China and Thailand support the insurgents in exchange for access to natural resources including timber.

Global Witness estimates that illegal timber exports from Burma amounted to at least 1.3 million cubic metres in 2003-04. Fifteen per cent of the junta's export earnings come from timber. Now we know some of that cash comes from Chelsea.

But the exhibitors of SW1 cannot be held solely responsible. While even George Bush has imposed sanctions, including a ban on Burmese imports, the EU and UK have gone no further than advising companies against investing in the country. Meanwhile Burmese teak remains on a US Department of Labour list of items for "which there is a reasonable basis to believe ... may have been mined, produced or manufactured by forced or indentured child labour."

Tony Blair could deal a blow to the junta and deliver a boon to forest protection efforts by banning imports of illegal timber tomorrow.

As it is, New Labour's record on forest protection has been lamentable. In the past Greenpeace has even caught the Government using illegal timber on its own building sites.

There's simply no need to make furniture from conflict timber. Next year Chelsea should be a monument to that great British institution of sustainable gardening, not that other tradition of exploiting the people and environments of other nations. The question now is: Does the Royal Horticultural Society really have green fingers?

Pat Venditti is head of the Greenpeace UK forest campaign

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