Behind the scenes work to stop illegal logging

Illegal logging is a big issue. Approximately 30% to 50% of all timber traded globally is illegally sourced. Illegal logging comes in many forms. It may be the replacement of high value for low value timber products, it may incorrect declaration of species or region of origin of products, which masks trade in endangered species or export of timber from protected areas, or it may be the mixing of illegitimately and legitimately sourced timber. 

Combating illegal logging also needs to take many forms, many of these are technology solutions that support behaviour change.

Illegal logging is a driver of major economic, environmental and social problems in timber producing countries, reducing legal timber industry revenue, clearing virgin forest, emitting greenhouse gases and displacing forest dwelling communities.

And in terms of monetary value, illegal logging ranks up there with other transnational crime including people, drugs and arms smuggling. 

On the plus side, there have been a number of efforts to prevent illegally logged timber entering international supply chains. Legislation to prosecute traffickers have been introduced in Europe, USA and Australia, and voluntary certification methods (e.g. FSC and PEFC) aim to provide customers with an ethical choice. But perhaps the biggest advances have been the development of technologies that can identify the species and region of origin of timber, thus allowing enforcement of legislation and verification of claims of legality and sustainability. 

Many of these tools include advanced technologies, such as genomics, elemental profiling, computer vision and machine learning, and are now promoted by the United Nations and other transnational organisations.

So here’s a break down of how these technologies are helping control illegal logging:

Starting to test

The rapid, and in some cases automated, testing of timber origin is underway around the world. Timber shipments are being tested in Europe, USA and Australia, amongst others, to monitor and control timber imports. For example, using DNA species ID methods (DNA barcoding) 40% of timber products imported into Australia were recently shown to be not what they claimed to be, and therefore considered illegal under current legislation. 

Making information available 

To allow a broader range of government and industry groups to access and utilise these methods, data need to be available. The Global Timber Tracking Network (GTTN)- a network of research, government and technology labs – has launched an open-source database for this purpose. Several data sets are already available to the GTTN consortium, including a recent upload of the big leaf maple DNA database that was used to prosecute four people involved in the illegal harvest and trade of big leaf maple from national parks in Washington State, USA. 

Applying technology with industry

Its not just government prosecutions that can use these methods. More proactively these methods can be used by industry to control their supply chains. These methods are now being adopted by voluntary certification agencies (e.g. FSC). But industry need to develop methods that can make supply chains fully transparent. The use of georeferencing, block chain ready data channels and machine learning driven automation of information capture are all assisting in the complex area of timber import and export verification. 

The Australian Government has also recently awarded funding for the development of new tracing technologies. One of these grants with Interpredata and University of Adelaide, is working towards automatically recovering DNA information from internationally databases to build genetic resources to fight illegal logging.

Building data resources 

Finally, we still need to build the databases required for timber testing. Good species level ID tools exist using wood anatomy, DNA and secondary compounds. But a review of technologies for the top 200 traded timber species, found that less than 20% had any kind of geographic provenance data. To make matters worse, at current rates of investigation, it will take between 20 and 100 years to generate the required information.

So we need to get on with the job. 

Several high-profile database development projects are underway or have recently been completed, including; Madagascan rosewood, the top 20 African and American timber species, teak from Myanmar and surrounding areas and the valuable dipterocarp timber groups from Borneo. For example a recently supported project (International Tropical Timber Organization) is looking to develop a DNA verification system for Prunus Africana in Cameroon, a valuable and important medicinal tree. 

Its good to see these methods being developed, not only from a scientific push side, but from a policy pull, and industry application and adoption side. Industry players are set to apply these technologies in what are in many cases very complex supply chain. 

A complex problem with a complex set of solutions being made simpler through technology application. 

Featured image cartoon in The Economist 2012

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