Wood Products From Where? DNA Detectives Could Stop Illegal Loggers

The beautiful hardwood table in your dining room may be of more dubious origin than you thought. BBC Television’s Panorama programme has revealed that new EU timber regulations are falling short against Congo rainforest logging scam. Such scams, though, can be overcome with a new technology involving DNA sampling and testing developed by Singapore-based DoubleHelix. Elsewhere in Africa, the new nation of South Sudan shows great promise in developing a sustainable agricultural sector, though challenges still remain which require extensive aid to overcome. Read more

Has the EU fallen for Congo rainforest logging scam?

By Raphael Rowe for BBC Panorama (22 July 2013):

BBC Television’s Panorama programme has spent six months tracking illegal logs from the Congo rainforest to western Europe. The investigation has revealed that new EU timber regulations are failing to stop illegal wood getting into European stores.

I have been on a stakeout for two days, but finally the moment I have been waiting for is about to arrive. I have been monitoring a ship carrying wood to Europe from Congo-Brazzaville.

It is the dead of the night and I am at the port of La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast.

While its marina and pretty cafes make it a popular holiday destination, La Rochelle is also a major European gateway for West African logs.

The logs on board were delivered shortly after the EU Timber Regulation came into force in March. Behind the regulation is a desire to end corruption, exploitation and create a sustainable rainforest logging industry.

This high-risk shipment will test the promise to European consumers that the timber they buy is legally harvested.

As dawn breaks, the cargo is unloaded and I can check the log markings that reveal which company felled the wood.

The engravings show they are Okoume tropical hardwood trees from Banda Nord – one of two forest cutting zones in Congo-Brazzaville used by logging company Taman Industries Limited.

But the markings appear to have been altered to change the zone of origin.

Last year so many logs were shipped abroad that the government stepped in and imposed an export ban.

The ban prevented the export of logs from 13 companies including from Taman’s other cutting zone.

But soon after, logs supposedly coming out of Banda Nord increased dramatically and were found with altered markings. The zone of origin had been changed.

Taman said it was a mistake due to human error and paid a small fine.

“Based on the sheer volumes that were coming out of Banda Nord we thought this doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem possible to be cutting that many trees,” said Serge Moukouri, of Resource Extraction Monitoring, which has been observing the logging industry for the past seven years.

Logging export ban The export ban affected 13 companies that had topped their annual quota in just five months

They found timber harvested from Banda Nord had increased by nearly 500%.

Their investigation concluded Taman was using the Banda Nord concession fraudulently as a front to illegally export thousands of logs which would otherwise have been part of the export ban.

We asked Taman about the changed markings and whether the La Rochelle logs were part of a scam. They agreed the markings appeared to be changed and promised to get back to us with further details, but never did.

During a meeting they told Panorama: “I think there is nothing illegal from the Congo here. The exports are handled by… a branch of the Ministry of Forests. It is shown very clearly on the ticket on your logs that they are allowed to be exported.”

The forest monitors are concerned that the scale of illegality committed by Taman did not trigger an investigation into the La Rochelle logs by the European authorities and importers.

“I think that enough information was out there to raise enough doubt that at the very, very, least more in-depth investigation should have been done by the importer to access the risk,” said Brad Mulley, country co-ordinator at Forest Monitors.

We tracked down the importer of the logs. Edwood is one of La Rochelle’s biggest timber importers and is managed by Fabrice Gautier from a small office close to the port. Under the new EU laws it is their responsibility to ensure the timber has been sourced and imported legally.

We contacted Fabrice Gautier a number of times, but many questions remained unanswered. He would not tell us how he could be sure the logs were legally sourced.

We asked Taman what checks Fabrice Gautier had made about the logs they supplied. They told us he was given proof of their licences to cut and export timber.

But under the new regulations he should have done much more.

“Under the new EU timber regulations the import of this timber into France should have raised a red flag, this is at the very highest risk of what these timber regulations are about. And the operator who was importing the timber should have been held to account,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

“It’s absolutely urgent that France does set up a proper body to deal with it because if France or other countries don’t participate properly and effectively in the European timber regulation then of course it will weaken it and it won’t work in the way that it was set up to do”.

Source: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23358055


Tracking timber: could new technology help clean up the supply chain?

By Will Henley in Guardian Professional (14 August 2013):

The prized tropical hardwood merbau was once found in abundance from east Africa to Tahiti. It is beloved of homebuilders and furniture stores around the Asia-Pacific region, but, thanks to decades of merciless logging, today only New Guinea holds enough to be harvested in commercial quantities.

Verifying that merbau, which fetches about $2,500 a cubic metre on the open market, is genuinely sourced from sustainably forested areas, either in Papua New Guinea or West Papua in Indonesia, gives the conscientious buyer an almighty headache. But it is also proving a boon for wily technology companies.

Tracking timber

In 2007, Simmonds Lumber, a wholesaler based in Sydney, became the first company in the world to trial a new technology involving DNA sampling and testing. Developed by DoubleHelix, based in Singapore, and certification body Certisource, the technology involves checking wood fibres against the genetic code of trees known to exist in sustainably managed areas.

As a business that imports more than 50 containers a month of merbau into the country, mainly from Indonesia, it was essential to ensure that the wood was coming from where its suppliers claimed, explains John Simon, chief executive at Simmonds Lumber. “The trickiest thing about importing from Indonesia is ensuring that the paperwork is correct and not, as we say in Australia, bodged up.”

And, at least according to Simon, the Double Helix DNA tracking system provides a higher standard of proof than that offered by either the Forest Stewardship Council or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, both of which he says focus on auditing company processes, not authenticating individual shipments.

However, DNA testing is not the only tracking technology being employed by suppliers and customers keen to ensure that they are not felled by fraud perpetrated by sawmills, factories or traders. Companies such as Track Record and SGS have popped up in recent years to offer software, digital barcoding, radio frequency identification tags and even satellite tracking to corroborate timber batches.

“Technology can play a real part in proving traceability,” insists Karim Peer, chief executive of Helveta, a firm based in Oxford, which offers a “digital passport” for buyers and sellers. Helveta’s verification system, used in countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, claims to track a product back to the forest where it began life as a sapling using barcode tags, which are then fixed to the product.

The introduction of tough new legislation aimed at combatting the trade in illegally sourced timber – such as the 2008 amendments to the US Lacey Act, 2012 Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in Australia, and 2010 EU Timber Regulation – has helped increase the appeal of authentication technologies, Peer says.

“The impetus for organisations in Europe and the US is that under the legislation, there are penalties that will be imposed if they don’t comply,” explains Peer. These penalties include criminal convictions, fines and even prison sentences – a sobering thought for a wholesaler or retailer who might have otherwise drawn comfort from their wilful ignorance of the supply chain.

Tackling the fraudsters

While new technologies may offer promise, neither the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) nor PEFC currently mandate that their members adopt them. According to Jonathan Geach, executive director of Double Helix, this leaves their chain-of-custody systems open to abuse, which he says act more like an “honour system” based on trust.

The access to markets and suppliers that FSC or PEFC certification offers creates a “perverse incentive” for fraudsters to cheat the system, adds Geach.

“FSC is very good at making sure that forests are well run, but, once a product gets out of a forest, you have myriad middle men and traders,” Geach says.

“Factories that sell certified products also sell uncertified products alongside. Now it doesn’t take much imagination to see that they may be mixing and through that laundering.”

However, to accuse the FSC or PEFC of being blind to the opportunities presented by technology would be unfair. Phil Guillery, systems integrity director for FSC International, explains that his organisation is already embarking on a project with Historic Futures, another British IT firm, to develop an online claims platform to verify the certification status of FSC suppliers.

“As the FSC has grown to cover almost every product from maple syrup to wood furniture – from the B&Qs and Ikeas of this world to small operations – [we have found that] the paper-based system we created needs to be modernised,” Guillery says.

DNA technology is under consideration, Guillery acknowledges, but he expresses reservations about its limitations.

“At this point, the cost effectiveness and the science aren’t quite there,” he says. “You can’t do testing on paper or lots of composite wood products because the DNA is generally removed. For some tropical species, there are many closely related relatives, which also makes it difficult.”

For all this focus on technology, there is a danger that companies may not see the wood for the trees, so to speak, at least when it comes to other important issues related to sustainable forest management.

“I don’t see how a DNA test will guarantee that workers in Malaysia or China or anywhere have their freedom of association or bargain rights honoured. I don’t see how barcoding will guarantee that forest workers come home at night with the body parts that they left with in the morning,” says Bill Street, chairman of PEFC’s board of directors.

“The goal, at least for PEFC, is that we put an end to deforestation and that requires focusing on a much larger picture than just technology.”

Source: www.theguardian.com


Planting the Seeds of Sustainability in South Sudan

By Colin H.P. Buckley  (20 August 2013):

In the world’s newest nation of South Sudan, the legacy of four decades of civil war continues to challenge efforts to gather reliable current statistics on health, education, the economy and other factors. USAID and other development partners are seeking to help the South Sudanese people build a robust and resilient economy. Key to that effort is modernizing and expanding the agriculture sector. Because decades of war often forced people from their land, South Sudan as a whole lost much of its agricultural knowledge base. As a result, most of South Sudan’s food is imported, despite significant arable land, plentiful water and good quality soil. In spite of the challenges, most South Sudanese are still involved in agriculture, typically as subsistence farmers producing crops such as maize, sorghum, cassava and groundnuts. Production levels are low, however, and even farmers in the most fertile region—the “Greenbelt” that crosses the three Equatoria states—are affected by a number of adverse conditions, including poor quality seeds, deficient farming equipment, lack of roads to get their goods to market and post-harvest losses due to inadequate or nonexistent storage.

To examine the effects of USAID’s assistance in South Sudan’s agriculture sector since 2012, a USAID team led by economist Paul Pleva recently completed a cost-benefit analysis of the $26 million in USAID funds currently being spent annually in South Sudan in support of the Feed the Future Initiative.  Part of the analysis examined two different techniques for improving crop yields, both being promoted under USAID’s Food, Agribusiness and Rural Markets (FARM) project.  Begun in 2010, the FARM project seeks to boost agricultural growth through improved inputs, strengthen market linkages, improve the conditions for private sector investment and improve infrastructure to facilitate trade.

Pleva analyzed the two techniques being implemented through the FARM project to improve crop yields. One technique required relatively expensive farming inputs, but promised potentially dramatic yield increases.  A second technique focused on more simple improvements such as improved seeds, proper weeding and seed row spacing for more modest yield increases.  The team observed actual outcomes produced by the two techniques and considered the sustainability of each.

Pleva led a collaborative effort to collect data from multiple sources, identify inconsistencies and compare the quality of those sources. He used inexpensive technologies such as Google Apps to ensure that USAID implementing partners around the world could provide input.

Cheaper farming techniques improve farming yields and result in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers. Photo credit:

Cheaper farming techniques improve farming yields and result in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers. Photo credit: Sait Mboob

After comparing the results, the USAID team found that of the two interventions, the cheaper technique of improving farming yields resulted in greater profitability for South Sudanese farmers and provided a much better chance of sustainability after the project ends.  The evidence for this finding was significant and, as a result, USAID turned the focus of the project toward the cheaper and more sustainable intervention.

Small sums can generate big returns—in this case for both farmers and USAID. USAID made a modest investment of resources—the staff time of a small team—to conduct the cost-benefit analysis, and in doing so, increased the development impact of taxpayer dollars significantly. Farmers in South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, stand to benefit economically from the findings of this analysis—a potential path out of poverty.

By using economic analysis to prove that simple techniques can best assist South Sudan’s farmers, USAID had avoided an all too common trap in development—unsustainable projects that fall apart when donors conclude a project or cease assistance to a sector or country. Lessons like this one not only save money in the short-term, but by helping people to increase their household income and food security they also decrease the likelihood that emergency funds will be needed to help these communities in the future.

Source: www.blog.usaid.gov/2013/08/planting-the-seeds-of-sustainability-in-south-sudan/

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