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Timber Certification Can’t See the Wood for the Trees

By Eleanor Dormontt

There are many laws that govern the harvesting and trading of timber yet illegal logging is rife and prosecution rates are low. It’s time for science to modernise timber certification schemes.

Despite concerted global efforts to combat illegal logging, rates remain high and detections and prosecutions remain low. Illegal logging contributes to deforestation, increased CO2 emissions and the marginalisation of communities that traditionally rely on forests for their cultural and economic survival. Embedding scientific testing into the routine operations of timber supply chains could help to detect and deter illegal activities, providing much-needed tools for law enforcement and industry compliance.

But why is it so hard to enforce the law? The answer is complex, involving a range of social, political and economic drivers, but a major factor is the difficulty with which timber can be identified.

Imagine you see a living tree in the forest. You know your location; you can see the leaves, and perhaps flowers and fruits or seeds; you can feel the bark; and you can observe the other plants and animals living on and around the tree. All of this information can help you to identify the species.

Now imagine instead that you are a Customs inspector whose job it is to intercept illegal shipments of all kinds. You open a container and you see some planks of wood. How do you identify the species? Where was it harvested from? Is it illegal?

Visual inspection of timber, even by a professional wood anatomist, can rarely identify to the species level accurately, and never the specific location from which a tree has come. We must look instead to other technologies, such as chemical and genetic profiling, to provide the identification power needed to enforce the law.

Illegal logging constitutes the largest illegal wildlife trade in the world. The global value is thought to be US$30–100 billion annually. By comparison, the illegal ivory trade is worth an estimated US$3 billion. Illegal logging rates in tropical areas can be as high as 90%. This includes South-East Asia, from where Australia imports significant amounts of timber.

Despite these startling statistics, as recently as 2012 it was legal under Australian law to import and trade timber that had been illegally harvested overseas. The Illegal Logging Prohibition Act now requires all actors in the supply chain to undertake due diligence to establish that timber does not come from illegal sources.

However, the reality is that this paper trail exercise rarely, if ever, checks that the wood itself matches what is claimed on the documentation. As important as this due diligence requirement is from a legislation standpoint, it does not go far enough to verify the legitimacy of timber imports.

Certification schemes are becoming very popular as a means to ensure not only the legality but also the sustainability of wood products. In certified supply chains each point is audited, from the forest where the wood was harvested through transport to log yards, saw mills and processing plants. These audits examine the mandated protocols of these enterprises and, where certification is granted, ensure that products meet the required standards of legality and sustainability.

Critically, however, certification schemes currently do not undertake independent scientific verification of wood products. They are unable to verify whether wood purported to have originated through these sustainable supply chains actually has. As the demand for certified products grows through increased consumer awareness, so does the incentive to hijack the system and launder illegal products through certified supply chains and reaping the benefits of certification without bearing the costs of compliance.

In order to ease the burden on law enforcement, maximise the efficacy of due diligence requirements and protect the integrity of certification schemes, scientific verification should become a routine part of the administration of timber supply chains globally.

For example, genetic profiling of trees in the forest can be matched with timber samples from the log yard and sawmill to verify that there has been no illegal augmentation of timber loads. Likewise chemical profiling, such as stable isotope analysis, can be applied at international border crossings to verify the geographic origin of timber shipments.

Achieving the integration of such scientific verification methods will require coordinated efforts from policymakers, law enforcement, certification schemes and the scientific community to build capacity and develop appropriate implementation frameworks.

Eleanor Dormontt is a Postdoctoral Researcher in DNA Identification and Forensics at The University of Adelaide.