Science - February 12, 2015

TimTrace combats illegal logging of tropical wood

Roelof Kleis

An EU ban on trading illegally logged tropical timber came into force two years ago. But this doesn’t reflect what’s happening in practice. An estimated 50 percent of the tropical timber on the market is illegal. And there are no good methods for tracing it.

However, ecologist Pieter Zuidema thinks he has found the answer: Timtrace. Timtrace (tim is short for timber) is based on the research that Zuidema has been doing over the past five years in Thailand, Bolivia and Cameroon into the effects of climate change on the growth of tropical forests. Zuidema used annual growth rings and isotope compositions to identify these effects. ‘The pattern of growth rings is specific to a location, because it depends on the annual variation in precipitation and temperature. In addition, isotopes of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen provide information about the growing conditions, such as soil condition, moisture and the availability of nutrients.’ Together with genetic information from DNA research, this information provides a kind of fingerprint of the timber.

By comparing this fingerprint with data in the database being compiled, the origin of the timber can be stated with a fair degree of accuracy. Accuracy means here: 10-100 kilometres for DNA data, 100-1000 kilometres for research into isotopes and growth rings. Enough to trace timber to a region or country of origin, believes Zuidema.

And he’s not alone. Both the EU (150,000 euros) and the NWO (40,000 euros) are investing money in the project. Post-doc Mart Vlam, a former PhD candidate under Zuidema, will be developing Timtrace into a working instrument and possibly an independent company. That will involve a great deal of work. Zuidema’s database contains measurements of twenty tree species. This library must be expanded and supplemented with DNA data.

With Timtrace, Zuidema is aiming to interest certification bodies, governments and the timber industry. At present inspection is still an exercise on paper, which makes it vulnerable to fraud. ‘Timtrace can enhance that paper- based inspection or even replace it. But it won’t become a product for use by the public. The measurements are too costly for that. It will always have to be a case of spot checks. You can’t take a quick measurement of every plank the retailer has in stock.

Photo: Mart Vlam. Legal logging in Cameroon.