Tuesday, 15 September 2009

DNA technology could help save endangered forest species

Jonathan Wootliff | Tue, 09/15/2009 / The Jakarta Post

New technology is providing some hope to those battling to stop Indonesia's massively devastating and hugely costly illegal logging activity.

In recent years, unlawful forest destruction has resulted in undermining the rule of law and deprived the state of substantial revenues. The World Bank estimates the illicit practice costs more than a staggering Rp 100 trillion each year.

It has serious economic and social implications for the poor and disadvantaged and the threat to ecosystems and biodiversity is enormous, with very little long-term advantage for anyone other than those who are responsible for the plunder and smuggling of timber.

There is no doubt that the use of endangered wood for elegant furniture, timber-lined walls and hardwood floors in the West is fueling this appalling trade, which is threatening to wipe out whole species of trees and precious rainforests, and the livelihoods of millions of Indonesians dependent on the forests for their survival.

Despite efforts from the government to stamp it out, the destruction of massive amounts of irreplaceable Indonesian rainforest appears to continue unabated.

Environmentalists have long been attempting to pressure the authorities to do more to stop illegal logging but a key challenge has always been tracking the origin of timber.

But now one organization has developed an innovative process for identifying exactly where each piece of wood comes from by using DNA technology.

Singapore-based Double Helix Tracking Technologies (DHTT) extracts DNA samples in the forest and builds databases. DNA tests then enable them to identify precisely which forest a piece of timber actually comes from.

In effect, this technology should put the prevention of use of illegally traded timber in the hands of customers.

Various measures are in place to curb illegal logging with a plethora of bodies having been established by civil society stakeholders and private sector representatives from timber-producing countries, in partnership with the World Bank.

The United States must take the credit for taking the first important step in addressing the illegal logging issue by extending the century-old wildlife protection law to include timber.

The so-called Lacey Act made it mandatory for an importer to declare the origin of their timber. If found guilty of illegal logging, the importer is subject to heavy fines.

But this law has proven tough to enforce with the timber industry being dependent on an old-fashioned paper-based system for traceability, which is prone to fraud.

DHTT's DNA database is the first step in creating a system to irrefutably prove the origin of timber, and this could be used to enforce the Lacey Act. A perfect example is the merbau species, a resilient red hardwood that is one of the most valuable timbers in Southeast Asia because of the exquisite hardwood flooring that can be produced from it. It can also be used in high-quality furniture production.

Merbau was once found in many parts of the world. Today, the only significant quantities of commercially produced merbau come from the Indonesian province of Papua, and in Papua New Guinea.

"Illegal logging and the associated rampant trade in merbau means that most areas where the timber used to be found have none left, and what there is left is also facing extinction," says Greenpeace China's Liu Bing.

Liu explains that at the current legal rate of logging, merbau will have mostly disappeared within a single felling cycle, which is 35 years. If you take illegal factors into account, merbau's extinction moves much closer.

In 2005, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner, Telapak, uncovered crime syndicates that were removing 300,000 cubic meters of stolen merbau logs every month.

Western manufacturers and retailers buy the timber from Indonesia suppliers who claim they are legally harvesting the merbau.

Greenpeace maintains that hardly any of the merbau being sold has been properly legally certified and that most of the wood flooring made from the species is the result of illegal logging.

China plays a major role in this complex trading web because it is where most of the wood flooring in the world is actually made before being re-exported to the West.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has established a joint team to try to stop illegal logging in provinces such as Riau, Kalimantan and Papua. But the success has been compromised by all-too-common rifts between government agencies.

Also, research undertaken by the EIA and Telapak has uncovered wide disregard in Malaysia and Singapore for Indonesian legislation aimed at stopping illegal loggers; the EIA believes the forest crisis is being made worse by countries such as these, which it accuses of "green-washing" illegally cut rainforest timber from neighbors such as Indonesia.

Let's hope that the deployment of DNA technology can seriously help to eliminate the hurdles that get in the way of halting the devastation caused by illegal logging.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com.