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.