Illegal logging sounds like a victimless sort of crime, but it often ends up cheating local people out of the revenue from their forests and feeding corruption and organized crime. And it's a widespread problem: Areas of Indonesia, Brazil, Central America, Central Africa are all affected.
Technology can help curb the illegal wood economy, however, by offering new forms of traceability, compliance support for law-abiding companies, and market visibility and accountability through data.
Ruth Nogueron, a forestry associate with the World Resources Institute (WRI), in Washington, D.C., picked out several promising solutions in a recent blog post and then spoke to Co.Exist about them.
Stardust is a powder that can be sprayed on to trees, normally in the form of a clear lacquer or ink. Used with a scanning device, it offers traceability even when the wood is cut into pieces or turned into paper.
WRI has invested in the technology through a small pilot project, and it's also being used by the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency to combat illegal logging in Romania.
"The timber industry uses it to prove the legitimacy of the felling of a tree, or to mark illegal wood and trace it later it on," says José Gasqué, operations manager at the company behind the product. "Knowing the marker is there tells you right away what the wood is."
Stardust is invisible to the eye, non-toxic, and costs pennies per use, Gasqué says. It's thought to be cheaper than using RFID tags or barcodes, and more effective, because the substance is so persistent. "Stardust is very promising because you could potentially trace the product throughout the manufacturing process," Nogueron says.
Nogueron also points to the potential in better information collection and dissemination, as with the Responsible Timber Exchange developed by a Brazilian nonprofit. The system crunches a lot of data from official and unofficial sources, scoring suppliers on their fidelity to the law, and helping out companies that buy wood products to stay within the rules.
For example, it helps U.S. companies abide by the updated Lacey Act, which penalizes firms that buy plant-based products that have been sourced illegally. Importers have to declare where their raw materials come from, the species, and the volume—all of which the Timber Exchange helps with.
Nogueron says new technologies don't have to be used everywhere in the timber industry. They're just needed in the high-risk places and where the products are valuable, making them targets for criminal activity. She cautions, though, that any technology is only as good as its implementation.
"The technology is exciting but, by itself, it's not going to solve the problem," she says. "It's the human factor that brings the corruption into play, so you have to have systems in place within the technologies to reduce that human factor."
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