Flooring ‘gold rush’ driving rare tropical tree species to extinction

Major UK flooring retailers and building merchants are contributing to the extinction of merbau, a rare rainforest tree, Greenpeace claims in a report.1 It warns that the species will disappear in less than 35 years if action is not taken to stop the trade, which is driving destructive logging.

Greenpeace has called for merbau to be listed in appendix III to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This would require all traded wood to be certified as obtained in accordance with wildlife protection laws.

The group has also used the report to renew calls for UK and EU legislation banning the importation of illegal and destructively logged timber.

It says the demand for luxury flooring and furniture is stripping the hardwood merbau from tropical forests at "unprecedented rates".

Merbau, which takes up to 80 years to reach commercial size, is prized for its golden hue and attracts a high price on the world market. The species has already been eradicated from almost two thirds of its range and significant commercial quantities are now only found on the island of New Guinea.

Greenpeace estimates that remaining stands will disappear within 35 years. But the timeframe may be overgenerous given that the World Bank estimates that up to 80% of logging in the area is illegal.

During its investigations, Greenpeace found loggers were forging documents or rerouting timber through Malaysia to claim it was of legal origin. Shipments were also being exported illegally from Indonesia to China.

China is the world’s biggest market for merbau and the largest exporter of furniture, plywood and wood flooring. But Greenpeace also blames global flooring companies and UK retailers.

Firms singled out include Wolseley’s Build Center, Floors-2-Go and other well-known carpet and kitchen stores including Allied Carpets. The manufacturers Tarkett, Junckers and Boen are also listed as importing merbau into the UK. The report says few were able to prove the legal origins of their supply.

"Market demand is driving this species to extinction," said Belinda Fletcher, head of Greenpeace UK’s forest campaign. "It is outrageous that manufacturers are bringing it into the UK and retailers are selling it with no regard for where they are sourcing it from."

Floors-2-Go denied the claims. In a statement, chief executive Simon Farnsword said the company took the issue of environmental responsibility seriously: "Our range of merbau flooring was discontinued last year following concerns about the reliability of its source of supply. Floors-2-Go will not be purchasing this product in the future."

However, in late April the company was still selling merbau flooring at a discounted rate on its website with a claim that the product was "environmentally sound".

Wolseley’s Build Centre also denied it was selling the wood, claiming that advertised merbau flooring was an "administrative inaccuracy". When ENDS pointed out a merbau flooring product which was still being advertised on its website, it put this down to "a glitch".

In a statement, it said it withdrew merbau from its product range in May 2006. It added that it was committed to the responsible purchasing of forest products and highlighted how over 100 of its branches, registered under Timber Centre, were now Forest Stewardship Council Chain (FSC) of Custody certified. It plans to roll out certification to all of its 280 branches by the end of 2008.

Hardwood flooring manufacturer Junckers said that Greenpeace’s comments "would be taken on board". However, Boen, Tarkett and Allied Carpets made no comment.

A report by the Tropical Forest Trust (TFT) for the Environment Department (DEFRA) published in May said the "situation is ripe" for buyers to encourage Chinese firms to find sustainable sources of tropical wood.2

However, it acknowledges that proving without doubt the legality of raw materials in Chinese-produced flooring remains an "extremely problematic and contentious prospect".

"If European and US companies and consumers increase their demand for legally certified wood products, it will inspire a change in companies’ wood purchasing practices in China," said Scott Poynton, TFT executive director.

"If using legally certified wood is viewed as advantageous in the market, it will be widely imitated in China. The challenge is on the technical side, helping Chinese companies that want to be part of the solution figure out how to implement transparent and sustainable wood control systems."

  • The FSC has launched a new website to allow users to verify the status of FSC registered certificates along with details of the scope of the certificates, including which products and species it covers. It also lists suspended certificates.3
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