Australasia's home for timber news and information

Forestry: Protecting an ancient practice with new tools

Illegal deforestation is one of the most critical issues impacting the forestry industry today. It has a negative impact on the environment and casts a dark shadow over companies who are participating in sustainable, responsible and legal logging. The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources estimates up to 10%, or $800 million, of wood imported into Australia consists of illegally logged timber[i].  Source: Steve Nicholson, director of sustainability Solaris Paper for Timberbiz

Forestry is an ancient practice, exercised by civilisations for centuries. However, modern advances in technology could be the answer to ending illegal logging and improving sustainability in the forestry industry. DNA barcoding, blockchain, improvements to satellite technology and unique applications of smart phones have the potential to keep the forestry industry moving towards a sustainable future.

New technology such as DNA barcoding, allows harvested trees to be tracked to their source. DNA barcoding, a process which has been led by Australian researchers from Adelaide[ii], uses genetic material from trees to track individual logs or wood products, tracing them back to the country and region the wood was harvested. This allows organisations to identify where the natural resources used for production of wood-based products, like paper and timber furniture, come from, ensuring timber is not harvested from protected areas.

Another tool that could be coupled with DNA barcoding is blockchain

While blockchain is most familiar as a source for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the technology itself has many advantages for other industries, including forestry. Blockchain is a digital ledger, or record of transactions, that is visible to all. Blockchain is a ledger that is difficult to alter, creating trust between parties. While typical examples include financial transactions, where payments can be tracked, blockchain can also be used to track where products are coming from.

As the blockchain ledger is difficult to alter, it becomes harder for illegal logging to be disguised as legal logging. Therefore, results from DNA barcoding can be stored in blockchain, creating an unalterable record of the origin of timber in wood products. By utilising blockchain and DNA barcoding, organisations can monitor all aspects of the production process, all the way back to the raw materials they are using in production.

Eyes in the Sky

Satellite imagery has become an ever-useful tool in the fight against illegal deforestation. Organisations like Global Forest Watch allow the public to track illegal logging in real-time. Members of the public can track forest clearing as it occurs, and identify if any logging is taking place in protected areas like National Parks.

While satellites can only take aerial photos of forest cover, cameras have become more agile and mobile thanks to the wide-spread availability of drones. Drones are smaller and better able to capture illegal logging practices in harder to reach areas. This is particularly useful in a forest area where taller trees hide the visibility of smaller trees underneath, portraying an aerial image of adequate forest cover but in fact, illegal logging is taking place on the forest floor. Examples of drones being used for conservation and sustainability are already common practice in national parks around Australia and New Zealand, and globally in more at-risk regions like the Amazon.

Smartphone technology

Organisations are starting to implement smartphone technology to monitor illegal logging. Organisations such as TreeTAG have developed tools that can identify when loggers enter an area and start logging. They use a custom device which picks up on sounds in an area, so the tool can be used to identify when logging is taking place. Then authorities can be altered and sent to stop illegal loggers. Other tools with video capabilities are being developed too. Motion activated video sensors and doorbells that use Wi-Fi to store images in the cloud already protect homes. Widespread adoption of this technology could have a big impact on the forestry industry, providing hard proof of illegal logging activities in protected areas.

A human element

While new technology is generating new ways to track logging and help organisations become confident that their raw materials are coming from a legal source, they still require a human element of intervention, and a commitment to fighting illegal logging.

Organisations must pledge to implement blockchain and DNA tracking in their supply chains for the technologies to have any hope of being effective. Satellites and drones can identify forest loss, but it’s not until it is highlighted, and punishments enforced, that businesses will change their habits. The forestry industry does not need its own unique technology to fight illegal logging, it needs organisations that are willing to take existing tools and have the foresight to apply them to an environmental role.

It is impossible to employ enough workers to monitor every forest in the world, but adopting technological solutions allow governments with limited resources to monitor adequately for cases of illegal forestry.

Sustainability is one of the biggest environmental challenges of the 21st century. However, new technologies like blockchain and DNA barcoding can help organisations know they are engaging in sustainable practices. Meanwhile, developments in video technology and new uses for common technological devices could make it harder for illegal logging to take place.