Second Government inquiry into 'illegal' timber

The Government has launched an inquiry into claims by Greenpeace that timber logged illegally from Indonesian rainforests was used in the construction of a new Home Office building in London. The inquiry is the second in twelve months, and underlines the Government's failure to introduce an effective policy on procuring timber from sustainable and legal sources.

In 2000, the Prime Minister won praise when he announced a binding commitment on Government Departments and agencies to "actively seek" to buy timber from sustainable and legal sources (ENDS Report 306, p 27 ).

Whitehall has since proceeded at a glacial pace. Last year, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee declared it had been "unable to find any evidence of a systematic change in the pattern of public timber procurement" (ENDS Report 331, pp 36-37 ).

Last July, a report for the Environment Department by consultants ERM recommended that clear guidance and a "central point of expertise" was needed to take responsibility for the policy.1 One year on, no such body has been established.

Of the 13 Departments and agencies that reported in 2001/02 under the "greening government" initiative, almost 30% of spending on timber - some £6 million - went on supplies with no evidence of sustainability (ENDS Report 336, pp 15-16 ).

In April last year, Greenpeace protestors raided the Cabinet Office and "confiscated" newly installed doors made from illegally logged African hardwood. Despite initial official denials, a subsequent inquiry found that the Cabinet Office had not followed Government policy, and contractors Balfour Beatty had failed to supply any form of certification (ENDS Report 327, p 34 ).

The lack of progress recently led to Greenpeace repeating the tactic, when it occupied the construction site of the Home Office's new premises in Westminster for two days in June.

The group claims that the Government's main contractor, Bouygues, has used plywood supplied by Indonesian forestry firms Sumalindo Lestari Jaya, Asia Forestama Raya and Korindo - all involved in illegal logging and human rights abuses. The plywood has been used for hoardings and to retain drying concrete.

The occupation ended when the Government announced it would launch an investigation into the matter.

Greenpeace campaigner John Sauven said the names of the Indonesian companies were clearly stamped on the packaging cases. "Some 88% of timber from Indonesia is logged illegally, such as from 'protected' areas of ancient rainforest. Since there is no verified system to check the legality of timber, the only effective policy is for the UK to stop buying timber products from the country."

Mr Sauven said that Bouygues was "clueless" about what constituted sustainable or legal timber. The firm refused to be interviewed about the allegations. Bouygues was also responsible for plans to fit the new Home Office with an air conditioning system using HFCs - a powerful greenhouse gas - rather than a more benign alternative (ENDS Report 332, p 34 ).

A new report by Greenpeace into imports of Indonesian timber also shames builders' merchants Jewson and Travis Perkins.2 Both allegedly buy plywood from Barito Pacific, another Indonesian forestry company involved in illegal logging.

Jewson is a member of the WWF's 1995+ Group which is committed to obtaining an increasing amount of timber supplies from sources certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. But according to Greenpeace, the company imported some 17,000 m3 of plywood from Barito in 2002.

In a statement, Jewson admitted that 20% of its plywood came from Indonesia. The company says it will not place any new contracts with Indonesian timber suppliers.

In a letter to Greenpeace about the Home Office protest, Environment Minister Michael Meacher said: "I should be most concerned if the Government has inadvertently sponsored the use of illegally logged timber...if there are lessons to be learned here, they will be brought to the attention of the Ministerial Sub-Committee of Green Ministers and of all senior procurement officers in each Department."

Mr Meacher insisted that the Government was "pioneering" work on timber procurement. Although it is unable to unilaterally ban imports of illegal timber from Indonesia, it is working with the country to introduce reforms. It is also pressing the European Commission for legislation to ban illegally logged timber.

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