Stopping the illegal trade in timber from a server farm in Adelaide


Most people appreciate the enormous cost and suffering caused by the illegal global smuggling of people, drugs and arms. But illegal logging rivals those in monetary value and impact.

Illegal logging is a direct cause of major economic, environmental, and social problems in timber producing countries, reducing legal timber industry revenue, clearing virgin forest, emitting greenhouse gases and displacing forest dwelling communities.

Approximately 30% to 50% of all timber traded globally is illegally sourced and its illegal trade comes in many forms. From the replacement of high value for low value timber products to incorrect declaration of species or region of origin of products masking the trade in endangered species or the mixing of illegitimately and legitimately sourced timber. 

However, there is a global push to embrace technology to aid in the detection of illegal logging and further support behaviour change in timber communities and across the industry.

A University of Adelaide team is at the forefront of using data to combat illegal logging and is part of an international network of research, government, and technology labs.

Led by Professor Andy Lowe and Dr Arif Malik of the School of Biological Sciences, the team has recently secured an Australian Government Global Innovation Linkage Grant joint with InterpreData, a WA based software company, and Double Helix Tracking Technologies a Singapore based startup. They are building genetic resources to help identify and fight illegal logging in global supply chains.

As part of the Global Innovation Linkage Grant, genetic provenance testing will be developed for both native and internationally important timber species. Australian sandalwood is of particular interest as it has been over-harvested for over a century and is now facing extinction in the wild.

“These new genetic provenancing resources will greatly enhance our ability to track and identify illegal timber” says Professor Lowe. “We have previously conducted testing for The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment of timber for sale across Australia, and found that 40% of the timber was not what it was claimed to be, and considered illegal under current legislation.”

The Adelaide team has already had significant success through its technology application including the development of a big leaf maple DNA database that was used to prosecute four people involved in the illegal harvest and trade of big leaf maple from national parks in Washington State, USA. 

But perhaps the biggest advances have been the development of technologies that can identify the species and region of origin of timber allowing enforcement of legislation and verification of claims of legality and sustainability. It’s not just government prosecutions that can use these methods; industry can utilise them to better control their supply chains.

“Voluntary certification agencies like FSC have adopted these methods,” says Dr Malik, “but the timber industry needs to develop methods that can make supply chains fully transparent.”

“The use of georeferencing, block chain ready data channels and machine learning can all help in timber import and export verification,” explains Dr Malik.

What's next? 

The priority is to build the databases required for global timber testing. Good species level ID tools exist but a review of technologies of the top 200 traded timber species found that less than 20% had any kind of geographic data. Far more concerning is at current rates of investigation, it will take up to 100 years to generate the required information.

“Time is critical,” says Professor Lowe. “Several high-profile database development projects are underway or have recently been completed across some of the most threatened timbers globally.”

The team at the University of Adelaide are committed to developing the technology support tools and helping solve this incredibly complex problem with multifaceted solutions that are now being made simpler through technology. 

Tagged in featured, Environment, sustainability and climate change