Forest for the Trees, Part 3 of ???

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In the first two parts of this series, I’ve talked about the immense contribution forests make to sequestering carbon and in helping to mitigate climate change.  And in Part 1 it was pointed out that although we want to do more to help promote forest growth, it should be intuitively obvious that First deforestation must stop.

But it’s not that easy. 

A fascinating article in the April 2019 issue of Nature, with the intriguing title “Cops and Loggers” talks about the drama – and the science – and the projects initiated– around policing deforestation.

It starts with a story of international mystery involving Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Madagascar, China, and Oregon in the US.

The scene of the crime turned out to be Madagascar. What happened here was that a shipment of almost 4000 rosewood logs (28 shipping containers worth!) were on their way to Hong Kong from (ostensibly) Tanzania, when they arrived at Sri Lank in transit.  There, customs officers had been tipped off by Interpol that these particular logs had been cut not in Tanzania, but instead were a different species, one illegal to export, from Madagascar.

Indeed, the Sri Lankan customs authorities sent samples of the wood to a testing lab in Oregon which was equipped with a $200,000 mass spectrometer.  This new weapon in the battle against illegal logging, under the supervision of the Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland Oregon were able to quickly determine that the species of wood was not from Tanzania but from Madagascar.  The Chinese seller of these logs was found to be in violation of the law.

Interpol estimates that between 15 and 30% of the global timber trade is in violation of either national laws or international treaties, and it’s not evenly spread across countries. From the Nature article, “for countries such as Democratic Republic of the Conga, Laos, and Papua New Guinea, illegal timber could account for more than 70% of the nation’s production.”  And the absolute numbers are huge, with the market being worth somewhere around $50B per year, give or take $40B.

The rules come from (amongst other regulations and treaties), The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), signed by 183 countries.  Rosewood genus Dalbergia is on the list.

The CITES site is rich with information about importers and exporters, statistics, and because we’re project managers and just love these things, it also includes dashboards.  I tried one, and easily navigated to place where I could generate up-to-date info on timber exports (see figure below).

This shows the top 10 exporters of wood.

So the scenario is this:

Good guys (nations and their laws) against bad guys (illegal loggers and their saws).  What projects, tools, and techniques are the good guys using?

Thankfully, there are advances in chemical, optical, and generic fingerprinting that can make it possible, for example, to determine where a tree grew, right down to a particular PART of a particular forest.  For these to work best, however, a baseline has to be generated (sound familiar?).  Reference samples must be collected and stored. IN February of this year, the US and other governments have committed to supporting efforts (projects!) to collect the ‘fingerprint’ database.

There are somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 species of trees on our Earth.  Doing this fingerprinting effort is a project unto itself, and creating tools that do so, yields dozens if not hundreds of others.  One that caught my attention was the XyloTron (sometimes called XyloScope) which allows field identification of wood types, with a simple hand-held device connected to (and powered by) a laptop PC.  You really should watch this short video by one of its inventors.  Turning the device into an inexpensive and readily available product would itself be another project.

Separately, a joint project of concerned conservationists, a collaboration of the Amazon Regional Program (BMZ/DGIS/GIZ), the SINCHI Institute of Colombia and the Laboratory of Forest Products of the Brazilian Forest Service, with the cooperation of the Thunen Institute of Germany, developed a pilot of the Electronic Identification Key of Amazon Timber Species.  This video from the Organização do Tratado de Cooperação Amazônica (in Spanish and Portuguese but subtitled in English) explains this project.

Want to try one of these yourself?  You can (with the addition of a macro lens) download an app and go to work immediately.  Check out this project from Malaysia:

See a cool video here:

Again, populating the database is key, and Kew Gardens (I’ve blogged about them before) has a program to do just that.  This project is worth an entire blog post.  However I will just send you to this article from the UK’s Daily Telegraph.

It’s a little like an episode of CSI Forest.  There’s much more to this I haven’t even touched on here:  3D microscopes and the use of stable isotope ratio analysis – I highly recommend the article in Nature.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: May 24, 2019 10:25 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Very Informative and interesting Post. Thanks for sharing it.

I've enjoyed the content, the writing style, and the message of these posts. Thanks again. If there's another post to follow, please mention some companies that are striving to make a difference. I would love to help them out any way I can.

Extremely interesting, great delivery as always, thank you and keep sharing, such a valuable series

Very encouraging that illegal logger are more and more keep in check. Would be great to catch them closer to site of deforestation, satellites or other mean should be consider.

Thanks for the valuable information, it's great to see people who are aware of the existing forestry issues as well. Our Malaysia-based company (Agritix) has also developed a similar wood identification system known as the Xylorix that allows users to identify wood types through a phone app with macro lens.

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