New timber tracking tools to bolster global fight against illegal logging

A new strategy aimed at monitoring the supply chain of timber products using genetic and stable isotope markers will play a vital role in international efforts to combat illegal logging, say scientists, policy analysts and forestry experts who gathered at a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last month to lay the groundwork for the project.
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Wood knot/Flickr Wai Tie

A new strategy aimed at monitoring the supply chain of timber products using genetic and stable isotope markers will play a vital role in international efforts to combat illegal logging, say scientists, policy analysts and forestry experts who gathered at a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last month to lay the groundwork for the project.

The Global Timber Tracking Network (GTTN), coordinated by Bioversity International as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, is leading efforts to promote the use of innovative control tools based on the application of DNA and stable isotope research to identify timber species and trace their origins.

“Genetic data provides a level of evidence that you can’t contest. Because the DNA is in every cell of wood, you can’t falsify that data,” said Andrew Lowe, professor of plant conservation biology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “The database we’re setting up will serve as an important resource for providing checks on the forestry industry.”

The Global Timber Tracking Network aims to create a global database featuring genetic and stable isotope markers for commonly traded timber species, a landmark tool designed to reinforce certification standards and legislation and to complement existing paper-based documentation that can be easily falsified.

Using DNA and stable isotope markers to track the supply chain of timber products will provide a practical mechanism for producer and consumer countries alike to enforce regulations to curb illegal logging. The GTTN database will allow importers to verify the precise species and origin of wood and wood products and provide tangible proof that the products were genuinely derived from a sustainably managed forest or other legally harvested timber.

“What good are the laws if you can’t control the supply chain? This allows us to ensure the supplier delivers what is stated on the documents,” said Thorsten Hinrichs of Germany’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, speaking on the sidelines of the two-day workshop. Germany is the main donor supporting the project.

GTTN will back recent regulatory initiatives, such as the European Union Timber Regulation, which aims to stop the entry of illegal timber and wood products into the EU. Set to take effect in March 2013, the regulation requires companies importing wood to certify that the products are made from legally harvested timber, in accordance with the laws of the producing country.

The EU has been negotiating bilateral Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA) with individual timber-producing countries to comply with the EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan. Under the agreements, partner countries must improve the regulation and governance of their forest sector to guarantee that wood exported to the EU is from legal sources.

In May 2011, Indonesia became the first country in Asia to sign a VPA with the EU. While Indonesia has signed MoUs with a number of key timber-importing countries, including the United States and Australia, many of the MoUs exist only on paper and have not led to concrete monitoring systems, according to a recent CIFOR study on illegal logging in Indonesia.

“We are seeing a strong policy push to find some way to identify illegally harvested timber, and DNA and stable isotope markers will make that possible,” said Judy Loo, a senior scientist at Bioversity.

Over the past ten years, many studies have used DNA markers to identify timber species and analyze genetic variation in forests. “We have reached a critical mass of information. It is time to start applying these timber tracking techniques in a serious way,” said Loo.

The GTTN database will be used to test whether the data generated by analyses of wood samples match the stated species and origin on product labels. Creating the database will require integrating data generated by different research techniques and collected by scientists working in various locations around the world. Global standards must be established for sampling and for lab analysis of genetic and stable isotope data in order to ensure the techniques used to gather and analyze the data are repeatable and verifiable.

“Reaching agreement on standards may be the most difficult aspect of making the timber tracking system operational,” said Loo.

To date, just a handful of projects have created individual databases for certain timber species. The Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) established an early database of tropical timber species using DNA fingerprinting data. The FRIM database has genetic data for chengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii) and ramin (Gonystylus bancanus), and work is under way for other traded timber species such as kempas (Koompassia malaccensis) and meranti bukit (Shorea platyclados).

“The availability of DNA profiling data on important timber species in Malaysia will enhance the capacity of Forest Department officials in the conviction of illegal loggers,” FRIM Director General Latif Mohmod told participants at the GTTN workshop.

In Brazil, a key timber-producing nation believed to have the world’s greatest biodiversity of plant species, correctly identifying timber species is especially challenging, said Milton Kanashiro, a research geneticist at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).

“Identifying species is a big problem in Brazil. Different species of trees often end up getting classified under one species because it can be difficult to properly identify so many species in the field,” Kanashiro said. “If species are not identified, we could be losing biodiversity without knowing it. And if you don’t know you are losing a species, you cannot properly protect it.”

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