Aug. 14 - The global illegal timber trade is estimated to be worth as much as $30 billion - but a new method of identifying the origin of wood using DNA testing could put a severe dent in the criminal gangs' profit margins. Rob Muir reports.
In Indonesia, the merbau tree is big business. It produces a durable timber, used to make planks for flooring and outdoor decks. Legal, commercial logging of the tree is highly profitable for industry and the country. But merbau is also a target for illegal loggers and suppliers who profit by mislabeling timber and lying about its origins. Lumber importers are often duped although now, science is coming to their aid. Singapore-based company Double Helix Tracking Technologies has developed a DNA tracking system that director Jonathan Geach says gives buyers a fool-poof weapon against fraud and illegal loggers. (SOUNDBITE)(English) JONATHAN GEACH, DOUBLE HELIX SAYING: "Every tree has got its own individual barcode system, its DNA, that travels with it. Using nature's barcode we can prove an origin of a table, a chair, a piece of flooring, a piece of decking. We can link it back to where it came from. We can make sure that all these sorts of things aren't happening. And this is like CSI meets save the planet." According to Interpol, the worldwide trade in illegal timber is worth up to 30 billion dollars per year. Tough new laws being implemented around the world to catch and punish those responsible have prompted importers, like Australia's Simmonds Lumber to get involved. Simmonds checks every pallet of merbau decking it imports, matching DNA samples with those from the original tree in the forest and the saw-mill, supplied by Double Helix. Simmonds Lumber CEO John Simon. (SOUNDBITE)(English) JOHN SIMON, CEO SIMMONDS LUMBER SAYING: "Under the proposed legislation that is going through parliament at the moment there are criminal sanctions for people that cant prove that they are importing from legal sources and obviously that is an issue for myself and for my board. We need to make sure that everything we do satisfies not only moral requirements but legal requirements as well." At Simmonds, each pallet is now labelled "DNA Lumber". (Natasot) DNA sampling has taken the fight against illegal logging to a new level of sophistication. Just a few wood shavings can tell the story of an entire tree. Samples can even be extracted from processed wood that is decades old. but Double Helix's chief scientific officer Andrew Lowe says problems remain with sampling trees in remote forest areas. SOUNDBITE)(English) PROFESSOR ANDY LOWE, DOUBLE HELIX, SAYING: "The real bottle neck in the process is actually sampling those natural populations. You are still working in areas that are really difficult to get access to and you still need to work with timber supply companies that are keen to have you there or conservation organisations that are keen to have their resources protected." But despite the challenges, scientists are building a DNA database for a growing number of tree species across the world..providing a powerful weapon for law enforcement and supplies, and a new level of protection for vulnerable forests. ..