Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 10:24 UK

Tree DNA to fight illegal logging

By Mariko Oi
Reporter, BBC Asia Business Report

Tree trunks
The DNA strand in trees is 60-100 times longer than a human one

One would not usually associate DNA tests with forests but in Singapore such a test has been developed for trees.

The aim is to help stamp out illegal logging, by proving where wooden furniture has come from.

"Our approach is scientific," said Kevin Hill from Double Helix Tracking Technologies, which tracks where wood comes from.

"We extract DNA samples in the forest and build databases," he explained.

Tree genome

Until recently, the emphasis of DNA testing has been on human and animals. But advancements in technology has made it viable to extract DNA out of trees, he explains.

Loggers who operate illegally do not pay the usual government fees

"The tree DNA strand or 'genome' is 60-100 times longer than a human one.

"Within this genome, we can identify genetic differences between individual trees, even of the same species, and map out these changes according to their geographic location in a database.

"We can use this technique to do a spot check on wooden furniture to prove that it has come from certain forests."

He said it would even be possible to match degraded DNA found in processed wood products against the database to determine its true origin.

Forest crime

Illegal logging first drew global attention in 1965, when Brazil implemented its first law against the crime.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, there are few instances of prosecution and punishment
World Bank report

The level of illegal timber harvesting in the Amazon has since fallen from over 80% to below half, according to the World Bank. The issue is obviously not solved but at least the government has been trying to address it.

But it remains extremely high in Asia.

The World Bank estimates that up to 80% of Indonesian timber comes from illegal sources. The figure is even worse in Cambodia.

Profitable business

Over $10bn (£6bn) of assets and revenue are estimated to have been lost worldwide each year because of illegal logging.

"It is very profitable," said Julian Newman of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

Loggers do not pay the usual royalties and fees to governments. They do not compensate local communities.

"But they can still sell the timber at market price and make huge profits," Mr Newman added.

Weak forest management

Yet the risk of getting caught is very low.

Only 7.3% of the world's forests are certified

"Despite the magnitude of the problem, there are few instances of prosecution and punishment," the World Bank said in its recent report.

Therefore the growing appetite for wooden products is being met by timber from illegal sources.

But such activities harm the livelihoods of 1 billion poor people, who depend on forests to survive.

Violations of protected areas also "threaten the conservation of forest resources and biodiversity", according to the World Bank report.

New law

Since the Bali Declaration was adopted at the East Asia Ministerial Conference in September 2001, governments around the world have been working together to tackle the crime.

But there has been no law - until now.

"Americans led on this last year, by passing a law called Lacey Act Amendments," explained Mr Newman of EIA.

"For the first time, it is an offence in America to import any wood products which were made of illegal timber."

People say they are happy to pay that extra 10%, but when they walk into a store, they often leave with uncertified cheaper products
Kevin Hill, Double Helix Tracking Technologies

The European Union is due to debate similar legislation later this year.

Costly proof

But proving the country of origin is an expensive process.

"The supply chains involved in the timber industry are very complex," said Mr Hill.

"The current audit-paper based approach is very time consuming and costly."

That is partly why only 7.3% of the world's production forests are certified. Only 1.2% in Asia, according to the UK Timber Trade Federation.

Cheaper goods

There is a price for the certified wood products. At the moment, they cost customers an average of another 10 cents in the dollar.

"People say they are happy to pay that extra 10%, but when they walk into a store, they often leave with uncertified cheaper products," Mr Hill said.

"Our aim is to make the tracking process more robust to make it very inexpensive."

It can reduce the cost of ethical furniture buying by half.

That, in turn, could help save Asia's forests.

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