Kew Gardens scientists create wood database to combat illegal logging

Materials World magazine
25 Mar 2019

Scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, are combatting the illegal logging industry by creating an internationally accessible timber database. Shardell finds out more. 

Kew Gardens, UK, home of the largest collections of wood samples in the world, is creating a database of trees that could help authorities determine if wood being sold has been acquired from protected areas.

Kew scientists are collaborating with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which runs the global forest certification system, to catalogue timber using identification technologies such as isotope testing. This allows them to determine species of timber and geolocate their source.

The new project aims to collect over 200 samples from five commonly traded wood species in the FSC-certified forests of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Peru over the next year. The longer term intention is to expand this to all 1,500 FSC-certified forests.

‘Because of things like EU timber regulations, which came in in 2013, people who are importing timber products have to use due diligence to show that what they are importing has been legally sourced, which is not very easy to do, especially if it is something that is not listed,’ Kew’s Research Leader on wood and timber, Dr Peter Gasson, told Materials World. ‘Just because you are importing oak furniture, it doesn’t mean that the trees are chopped down legally.’

‘One way of trying to address that is to build up reference collections of timber with known identities, and also precise locations for where the tree grew – that is what we’re planning to do with the FSC.’

The project followed a pilot scheme launched by the FSC in the USA in 2007, which is now being expanded after evidence from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed that in Latin America, illegally logged wood was being shipped alongside FSC-certified timber.

Illegal logging

The trading, harvesting, transporting, processing, buying or selling of timber in violation of sub-national laws is a multi-billion dollar industry. Interpol estimates that illegal logging is worth between £23bln-£76bln annually, with up to 30% of all internationally traded timber thought to be illegally sourced. According to a 2004 report by Seneca Creek Associates & Wood Resources International, it is estimated that between 5-10% of the value of the global wood products trade was likely to have been illegally sourced.

The increase in demand for timber, paper and derivative products including packaging, has emboldened the illegal industry, creating detrimental economic consequences along with the obvious destruction of forests. The World Bank states the annual global market loses US$10bln from illegal logging, with governments losing an additional US$5bln in revenues.

‘This is exacerbated in countries where forest governance is not strong enough to tackle malpractice and cross-border controls are weak,’ says WWF Forest Sector Transformation team lead, Julia Young. ‘Illegal timber depresses global prices – excluding illegal forest products from the market can support transformation of the industry to protect and better manage forests.’

The practicality of governing forests, however, is not an easily manageable task, as following the chain of custody can be problematic. To tackle this problem, Kew scientists are drawing on both their wood collection and expertise.

Identifying wood

Building its collection since 1847, Kew has over 42,000 samples of microscope slides of sections of these woods, paired with expertise, built up over many decades to identify unknown samples.

Gasson and his research team have used traditional wood identification techniques for their collection, including light microscopy and isotope testing, and plan on using additional techniques to contribute to the database. There are different levels of difficulty when examining hardwood or softwood, but light microscopy is usually sufficient to identify a wood sample to the genus level.

‘There are several different techniques we want to use. I’m a traditional with anatomy. So I would take sample sections of them and look at them under the microscope’, Gasson says.

‘I can usually identify, at least to the level of genus, what I’ve got in front of me, and stable isotopes should be able to tell you where the tree grew. Then there are other techniques – such as a mass spectrometry technique which people claim could even get you as far as species. I don’t think one technique will actually answer both questions – what is it, where did it come from.’

Transitioning from an in-house collection to worldwide accessibility, the database is in the early stages of development, but the team is optimistic on the scale and impact of the project. Gasson says, ‘There are plenty of gaps in our collection, and the FSC is well-placed to help us fill some of them with georeferenced samples from their worldwide concessions.’