DNA tests tell trees from the wood; curb illegal logging
SINGAPORE, (Reuters) – Call it CSI: Singapore.
Unlike the Crime Scene Investigators from the popular TV series, these detectives are hired to look for evidence of rogue wood from stores increasingly worried about being duped by a global trade in illegal timber now worth billions.
They take wood samples into their lab and put them through DNA tests that can pinpoint the species and origin of a piece of timber. They also track timber and timber products from forest to shop to ensure clients’ shipments are legal.
“This is like CSI meets save the planet,” says Jonathan Geach, executive director of Double Helix Tracking Technologies, the Singapore company that has developed and commercialised DNA testing for wood, the only firm in the world to do so.
Every two seconds, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers, the World Bank said in a recent study. Annually, such illegally cleared land is equivalent to the size of Ireland.
The money earned from a trade that Interpol estimates at up to $30 billion annually is untaxed and often run by organised gangs to fund crime and conflict. The logging increases global warming with heightened carbon emissions, and landslides through loss of watersheds. It causes loss of livelihoods in forest communities and dents global timber prices.
Until now, the battle against trade in illegal timber has been waged with regulations and preventive measures, and has not met with much success. Now it is increasingly focused on using the criminal justice system and law enforcement techniques.
New laws threatening jail time and fines are inducing companies around the world to take a harder look at where they get their timber — or pay the price of neglect.
Gibson Guitar Corp, which makes some of the world’s most prized guitars, agreed on Aug. 6 to pay a $300,000 penalty after it admitted to possible illegal purchases of ebony from Madagascar.
Mislabelling, lying about origin or substituting one type of wood for another have become common practices in the timber trade.