The prized tropical hardwood merbau was once found in abundance from east Africa to Tahiti. It is beloved of homebuilders and furniture stores around the Asia-Pacific region, but, thanks to decades of merciless logging, today only New Guinea holds enough to be harvested in commercial quantities.
Verifying that merbau, which fetches about $2,500 a cubic metre on the open market, is genuinely sourced from sustainably forested areas, either in Papua New Guinea or West Papua in Indonesia, gives the conscientious buyer an almighty headache. But it is also proving a boon for wily technology companies.
In 2007, Simmonds Lumber, a wholesaler based in Sydney, became the first company in the world to trial a new technology involving DNA sampling and testing. Developed by Double Helix, based in Singapore, and certification body Certisource, the technology involves checking wood fibres against the genetic code of trees known to exist in sustainably managed areas.
As a business that imports more than 50 containers a month of merbau into the country, mainly from Indonesia, it was essential to ensure that the wood was coming from where its suppliers claimed, explains John Simon, chief executive at Simmonds Lumber. “The trickiest thing about importing from Indonesia is ensuring that the paperwork is correct and not, as we say in Australia, bodged up.”
And, at least according to Simon, the Double Helix DNA tracking system provides a higher standard of proof than that offered by either the Forest Stewardship Council or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, both of which he says focus on auditing company processes, not authenticating individual shipments.
However, DNA testing is not the only tracking technology being employed by suppliers and customers keen to ensure that they are not felled by fraud perpetrated by sawmills, factories or traders. Companies such as Track Record and SGS have popped up in recent years to offer software, digital barcoding, radio frequency identification tags and even satellite tracking to corroborate timber batches.
“Technology can play a real part in proving traceability,” insists Karim Peer, chief executive of Helveta, a firm based in Oxford, which offers a “digital passport” for buyers and sellers. Helveta’s verification system, used in countries such as Libera and the Democratic Republic of Congo, claims to track a product back to the forest where it began life as a sapling using barcode tags, which are then fixed to the product.
The introduction of tough new legislation aimed at combatting the trade in illegally sourced timber – such as the 2008 amendments to the US Lacey Act, 2012 Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in Australia, and 2010 EU Timber Regulation – has helped increase the appeal of authentication technologies, Peer says.
“The impetus for organisations in Europe and the US is that under the legislation, there are penalties that will be imposed if they don’t comply,” explains Peer. These penalties include criminal convictions, fines and even prison sentences – a sobering thought for a wholesaler or retailer who might have otherwise drawn comfort from their wilful ignorance of the supply chain.
Tackling the fraudsters
While new technologies may offer promise, neither the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) nor PEFC currently mandate that their members adopt them. According to Jonathan Geach, executive director of Double Helix, this leaves their chain-of-custody systems open to abuse, which he says act more like an “honour system” based on trust.