These timbers come from established plantations in the tropics. There are some questions as to the ethics of establishment and management of such plantation-systems. Sometimes rainforest is deliberately cleared to make room for timber plantations. Some claims that tropical timbers have originated in plantations are true. These would qualify as reasonably ethical sources of timber, if one is sure that the claims of their producers are true. Without a centralised timber-certification scheme, this can be difficult, as there is a high monetary return - and therefore great incentive - for producers who provide misleading information.
Teak (Tectona spp) generally comes from one of three parts of the world:
Most Indonesian teak is grown in plantations in Java. An exotic species, it was introduced from India in the 4th century A.D. Because of overexploitation, most of the old growth teak was taken during the 2nd World War. Consequently, most of the remaining specimens are only 20 or so years old. These are managed by a state-run forestry organisation, "Perum Perhutani". Indonesia has branded its teak as being 'sustainable', yet cannot or will not supply information about the exact origins of its timber 1. Its claims of sustainability do not, therefore, stand up to more careful scrutiny. Ideally, this timber should also be avoided because of Indonesia's poor human rights record in places such as Aceh, West Papua (ie, West Irian/Irian Jaya) and East Timor.
Most of the Central American teak comes from Costa Rica, where - as for Indonesia - it is also an exotic species. Much of the plantation resource was established in the last 20 years on former cow pasture. Green groups have criticised Costa Rica's agricultural approach to forestry. This has included spraying rat poison on the trees and clearcutting entire areas of the species when harvesting them.
South East Asia
The main teak-growing countries are Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Eighty percent of the world's remaining teak forest-stand lies along the Burmese border with Thailand, where it provides shelter for indigenous tribal people, tigers, Asian elephants, and the rare Sumatra rhinoceros. Illegal cutting is booming in this area - helped along by the Burmese military regime2. Much of the timber is smuggled into Thailand (with the help of corrupt Thai politicians and businesspeople) for processing and export, as is the case with timber originating from Laos. The Cambodian Government has signed timber contracts with logging companies from a dozen other countries. A large part of the 1.2 million cubic metres of Cambodia's timber exports is old growth forest teak.
Roger Graf, from the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Foundation3 says that buying teak wood from plantations does not save rainforests. Plantations are agricultural projects, using pesticides. A substantial part of the teak wood being sold internationally comes from natural forests. Unscrupulous exporters and dealers are mixing the (often illegally harvested) old growth teak with Javanese plantation teak in order to move it to markets in Europe and North America. Determining the exact origin and forestry techniques used to harvest the teak trees is not possible due to the illegal machinations in the Thai area and the vague certificates being issued by Indonesia.
Teak from Costa Rica: Not Recommended
Teak from Asia: Leave it Alone!
Rubber trees have been cultivated in plantations for about the last 100 years in 24 tropical countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, after 25 to 30 years, the tree ceases to produce latex at an economic level. Such plantations are therefore systematically cleared and prepared for replanting over a 25 to 30 year cycle.
The wood from these trees is usually called Rubberwood or Parawood or Hevea wood (from its botanical name Hevea brasiliensis), and is used for manufacturing a wide range of products. In solid or laminated form, it is used for furniture, mouldings, parquetry, strip flooring, household items, toys, etc. It can be used to make plywood, particle board, wood cement board and MDF board. Its light colour allows it to be stained and finished according to requirements.
Rubberwood is a light hardwood which seasons to a pale cream colour. It is easy to work and is turnable. It is not durable, however. There are substantial quantities available at prices lower than many tropical hardwoods4. In countries such as India, it is an important business for smaller growers, where it supports about 300,000 workers. South East Asia has developed a strong rubberwood export industry, and is now working hard to boost value added items - rubberwood furniture exports have been particularly strong.
Rubberwood timber volumes worldwide are currently equivalent to the amount of timber coming from 600,000 hectares of old growth forest. It therefore has the potential to significantly ease the pressure on tropical forests.
Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera), is also called Indian Palm or Porcupine Wood. It is an exotic species which comes from the Pacific Islands, including Fiji, the Philippines and South East Asia. There, it is a very important feature of the natural and cultivated landscape. There are some coconut palm plantations in Far North Queensland.
In the past, the fruit has been the basis of economic interest. Because of the large numbers of overmature, unproductive trees, coconut wood has generated considerable interest. Coconut has no annual growth rings, no rays, no heartwood, no branches and no knots. Its fibrous nature makes it hard to cut unless green - a quite unusual prospect for woodworkers. It is durable only in dry conditions.
It can be used for general structural purposes: flooring, window frames, tool handles, furniture, carving, turnery. Softer material (from higher up the stem) can be used for wall panelling and internal trim. It may only be available locally in very limited quantities.5
If consumers encounter any other timbers, tropical or otherwise, that are claimed to be plantation-grown, please contact the Good Wood Guide.
1. SGS Forestry has apparently certified some timber plantations in Java for the State-run forestry corporation, Perum Perhutani.
2. A significant number of transnational foreign companies are still operating in Burma (mid 1998) and thereby giving tacit recognition of an illegitimate regime. Their presence offers continual support to the wretchedly oppressive Burmese military. Investment by these corporations (around half a billion dollars annually just from petroleum companies) allows the regime's generals to acquire badly needed foreign currency with which to finance their cruel suppression and enslavement of Burmese nationals. Australian mining companies in Burma include: Pacrim Energy, Terrace Gold, Pacific Arc Exploration, and Mandalay Mining Company. BHP and CRA have also expressed interest in exploration. Other Australian companies doing business with Burma include: Transfield, Multiplex, and Ericsson Australia.
3. See under Forest Activist Groups.
4. See Timber Industry Promotion Groups in the Alternative Directory.
5. For an Australian-based supplier of palmwood furniture, see Furniture Suppliers in the Alternative Directory.