The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products.

The hybrid science of isotope dendroprovenancing compares tree characteristics – ring-width, carbon isotopes, and DNA – to indexed forest data to determine the tree’s place of origin. The technology is one that has been explored by the Global Timber Tracking Network (GTTN), which aims to create a forest database against which to compare harvested trees. Using isotope provenancing, analysts can determine points of origin with 100-300 km accuracy. Given that logging concessions in Cameroon average 600 km2 and can range up to 2000 km2 in size (see here for more details), that precision isn’t bad. It means that, in many instances, data would be able to reveal whether export documents are accurate, whether companies are logging in concession, and, if not, where they are harvesting. Much like the medicine-stamping technologies discussed on this blog, advanced timber tracking has enormous potential to promote transparency and information gathering in the wood product industry. It can both indicate the actual extent of illicit logging practices and can pinpoint where enforcement efforts should be focused.

As with most innovative ideas, isotope provenancing has a number of imposing limitations. But they are not insurmountable.

  • First, GTTN’s techniques are difficult to scale up. The necessary technology is expensive. And developing a thorough database against which to test results is time- and resource-intensive. Comprehensively cataloging tree species in rainforested zones like the Congo Basin and the Amazon – some of the most bio-diverse places in the world – is a daunting task. Yet myriad NGOs, civil society groups, and international organizations that combat deforestation could dedicate resources to growing the network. Additionally, the Lacey Act places the burden of ensuring accurate origin on timber importers. Large, American companies thus have a strong interest in ascertaining the true origins of their products. They, too, might drive development of the GTTN.
  • Second, in its present state, GTTN technology is accurate only in a fairly large area. It would not be effective in small, community-based operations, which, in Cameroon, average only 0.04 km2. But given the relative impact of small- and large-scale loggers, it is likely most efficient to first target the commercial concessions anyway.
  • Third, the GTTN approach still depends upon follow-up enforcement, which may prove lacking. The technology in itself does not prevent misconduct but rather identifies wrongdoing after it has occurred. Only domestic enforcing authorities can stop over-logging. However, GTTN removes bribe-taking opportunities from the supply chain and therefore disincentives the refusal to enforce.

Clearly, GTTN and its supporting technology are far from perfect but their potential is impressive and we ought to think seriously about how to bolster each.

6 thoughts on “The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

  1. Great post! I’m especially curious to see if, as you suggest in your first enumerated point, the timber-importing industries of the United States will encourage the development of the GTTN database. They have everything to gain from being able to more transparently assess their legal risk under the Lacey Act, and no doubt they each spend a considerable amount on lawyers and auditors to mitigate that risk already. The industry could made a concerted effort to support the civil society groups who could contribute to building out the GTTN. In my mind this is similar to the incentives at play with the new Open Contracting Data Standard, a new project that I have been following which seeks to create a uniform database of all public procurement documents around the world. The advantage of GTTN is that it is a more targeted project and potentially has this narrow constituency of timber importers who face legal liability under the Lacey Act and comparable regimes. Excited to see how this develops.

    I’m not familiar with the Lacey Act, but I wonder if a creative lawyer couldn’t win an argument that a reasonable timber importing company would check using isotope provenancing to see if their timber was imported from the region it claims to be from… a court’s imposition of this cost on importers would surely drive them to seek a more cost-efficient solution, a la the GTTN. Don’t know if that’s possible under the Act, but it’s just a thought.

  2. Very interesting indeed. It looks like there is a lot interesting going on in Forestry right now: I’ve also been struck by the approach of Global Forest Watch ( using satellite data and other sources to build up global picture of forestry activity. I’m not sure how the forestry and agriculture fields interact, but this might also be something of interest to the Global Open Data Initiative on Agriculture and Nutrition (

    I’ve not had chance to look into the science, but I also wonder how far distributed citizen science approaches might play a role here. For example, the work of the public lab on low cost sensors that citizen groups can use could be relevant:

    I also noticed that the current approach of the GTIN does appear to be based on a centralised database, with restrictive licensing terms ( and so exploring more open data approaches to building up a distributed dataset about timber origins could definitely be relevant.

    • Good catch on GTTN’s use of a restrictive licensing scheme — I wonder what possible incentive they would have to do this? I don’t understand the field as well but it seems to me that 1) it’s silly to ignore the potential for citizens to make use of any large tranche of data and 2) such a licensing scheme may discourage skilled citizens from putting this data to new and interesting uses. Hm. If anybody from GTTN is watching this blog, would love a comment on this.

  3. Excellent post! Will be really interesting to see where this goes and what regulatory tweaks will help facilitate adoption and thus become potential advocacy asks for us at TI in other countries. Just re-blogged this and the previous great post on drugs verification technologies over at govtechrity (, my little observatory on government use of technologies for anticorruption that I maintain on the side.

  4. As is implied by your description of timber hurtling down the road to Douala, it strains credulity to believe this is a situation in which the government–from customs officials all the way to Ministers–is not highly aware of what is going on (not to mention the fact that they probably earn a pretty penny). If illicit logging accounts for up to 70% of the timber trade, we’re probably not dealing with a few bad eggs, but with a critical mass of the industry. That being the case, I wonder if there is a further scaling-up challenge: that of political will. Even if NGOs or, as Chris suggested in his comment above, importers who face liability pooled resources in order to grow the network, what are the chances they’d find themselves denied access to the areas that are being illegally logged, and so still unable to catalog the species? I wonder if there are any carrots and/or sticks at play that could force governments’ hands in such situations (donor fund requirements, international conventions, etc.)? The lessons Rick draws from his post on building political will to fight corruption in Nigeria could be instructive, though the Nigerian case-study does make it seems like a bit of a crisis may be required in order for GTTN to let get a foothold.

    • I hear you Melanie, that is a serious concern. What incentive does a corrupt government have to take steps towards transparency in their logging industry? I wish I knew more about the provenencing process itself — Liz mentions that it is resource-and-time intensive, but why? In my mind, all it takes is a bunch of tree samples shipped off to a lab somewhere. Perhaps GTTN could simply coordinate a bounty program where the loggers themselves (who are surely reacting to economic incentives, ANY economic incentives) take samples that are time-stamped and location-stamped (easy enough with a smart phone). Could be called “Bucks-for-Bark.” Admittedly, my thoughts on this subject should be understood in light of the fact that I have never been to Camaroon, nor provenanced one of its trees… any knowledgeable input here would be great!

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