UK firm barcodes trees to save the world’s forests


Barcoding every tree in an African rainforest sounds as plausible as counting grains of sand on a beach, but this is exactly what one British company has set out to do, reports Kate Walsh for the Times.

Helveta, a technology firm based in Oxford, is developing a system for tracking timber that will help prevent illegal logging and could become a template for forest management all over the world.

Using a system of barcoding similar to that used by supermarkets for stock control, Helveta aims to tag all 90 million trees in 4.3 million hectares of rainforest in Liberia.

The marking process will allow customers in Britain and elsewhere to trace every timber plank or piece of garden furniture back to its stump.

The Liberian government has awarded the company a £1m, four-year contract to implement the system.

A 14-year civil war destroyed much of Liberia’s forestry sector, along with the country’s infrastructure.

At the height of the fighting, the country’s fragile forests were being stripped to pay for weapons. Niangon and Lovoa, high-quality timber used in furniture making and worth up to £180 a cubic metre, was sold to buy guns and ammunition.

Helveta claims its system of mapping is the only one in the world that can guarantee the “sustainability and legality” of timber.

Climate change is making the protection and management of forests a priority – the provenance of timber is therefore becoming “critically important” to retailers such as B&Q and Habitat, the company said.

“Our appetite in the West for ethically-sourced goods – whether it’s coffee or chocolate – is growing and retailers are responding to that,” said Derek Charter, Helveta’s project manager in Liberia.

“There is also a raft of different legislation being put in place – at EU and UK-government level – that will enforce the legality of timber on the retailer. In other words, if retailers cannot prove where the timber has come from, they could be penalised.”

The process of barcoding each tree – about one million of the 90 million tagged trees will actually be harvested – is fairly simple.

A 4cm plastic tag, which has a unique identity number, is hammered into the tree trunk. Only trees over 40cm in diameter can be tagged; anything smaller than that is protected.

After the tree has been felled, another tag (carrying the same identity number) is hammered into the stump.

“The barcode gives a record of where exactly the tree stands in the forest,” said Mr Charter.

“Ultimately, it will create a map of the forest. It also records the species and what that tree would be expected to yield. All this information is stored in our database in Reading.

“If you went into a furniture retailer on the high street and asked where a garden table came from, they will look at the ticket and say it is from a forest in Bolivia but they have no proof – that’s just where they have been told it is from or where the invoice was paid.

“With our system you could go to our website, type in the tree’s identity number and it will show you a map of Liberia and then zoom into the stump where your timber was harvested from. The current principle is that the country can use that information to market its natural resources to the buyer.”

The government hopes that the first tagged log will be exported before the end of the year.

Some conservationists have criticised Liberia’s plans to cut down trees – sustainably or not – instead of setting aside its rainforest for carbon offsetting.

Employment is the government’s biggest argument in favour of logging, together with the tax revenues it will generate.

It is estimated that the forestry sector could employ 10,000 people directly by 2012 and another 30,000-40,000 indirectly.

US Aid, the American development agency, together with the UN and the World Bank, have invested $20m in the country’s forestry sector to prevent a return to the days of illegal logging.

The result is that not a single log has been exported from Liberia since the lifting of the embargo three years ago.

Peter Lowe, forestry co-ordinator at the World Bank, said: “Liberia really has bravely taken the challenge to set regional standards in forest conservation.

“[Barcoding] is the most sophisticated system I’ve seen because it requires levels of transparency that don’t normally exist.”

Source: The Times newspaper

Date: 22/03/2009

Wildlife flee Kenyan forest fires


Hundreds of thousands of flamingos and other wildlife are at risk after five forest fires erupted in Kenya on Saturday, say wildlife officials.

The BBC News website reports that police say they suspect some of the still-raging blazes were started by communities to make space for farmland.

The fires have had an adverse effect on the Masai Mara and in Tanzania on the Serengeti national park, officials say.

Other wildlife reserves are under threat, including Lake Nakuru, which is home to almost a million flamingos.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), all the rivers that drain from south-western Kenya’s Mau forest into the lake have dried drastically.

Nearly 60 species of wildlife, including white rhino, depend on the lake.

By Sunday an estimated 200 hectares (500 acres) of woodland had been razed in Mau – East Africa’s largest indigenous forest.

KWS communications manager Paul Udoto told the BBC: “We now have to pump water from underground bore holes to shallow pans to water the animals in the park otherwise they will all die. This is costing us a lot of money.”

Members of communities opposed to government plans to move them out of the Mau forest are suspected, say police, and several people have been arrested, accused of arson.

Another blaze nearby has destroyed about a quarter of the 52 sq km (20 square miles) Mount Longonot National Park, an extinct volcano in Kenya’s Rift Valley, said officials.

Zebras, buffaloes, antelopes, gazelles and giraffes have fled the fires, crossing roads and residential areas to reach safety, said witnesses.

But some wildlife experts said snakes and smaller animals, like rabbits and mongooses, may not have managed to escape.

Kenya is suffering a drought this year that has contributed to hunger the government says is affecting 10 million people.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 23/03/2009

Welsh woodlands to fight climate change


Climate change experts from across Europe will be seeing how the Welsh woodlands are already helping to alleviate the effects of climate change, says a press release from the UK Forestry Commission.

Researchers in Wales are putting in place exciting new ways in which the forests can help prevent flooding as well as locking away millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Leading members of the new FUTUREforest project will be taken on a fact-finding tour of south Wales on 26-27 March, 2009.

The mission is part of the project’s remit to share experiences and new methods of environmental management to prepare the forests of Europe for climate change.

Specialists from the other six partner regions – Auvergne, France (biodiversity); Brandenburg, Germany (knowledge transfer); Bulgaria (soil protection); Catalonia (natural risks); Latvia (timber production); Slovakia (carbon sequestration) will see some of the effects of climate change on Welsh forests – and some of the solutions in and around Abergavenny.

They will see how woody debris dams, new woodland creation and other flood risk management techniques in the uplands can help to prevent the kind of flooding that has caused millions of pounds worth of damage across Wales.

The 30 strong delegation will be staying at The Hill Education & Conference Centre, Abergavenny, and visiting Forestry Commission Wales woodland sites at Mynydd Du, Usk College and the Woodland Trust’s Great Triley Wood.

“We have already begun to discover much about the way the woodlands of Europe can help us to combat climate change,” said Mike Over, Project Manager of the FUTUREforest project in Wales.

“We hope that experts from our partner regions discover that in Wales we have made some really exciting new discoveries that can help them back in their own countries.”

Source: Forestry Commission press release

Date: 19/03/2009

UK forest agency launches greener towns partnership


Making Britain’s towns and cities greener places to live and work is the aim of a new partnership being launched by the UK Forestry Commission on 25 March, 2009.

The Urban Regeneration & Greenspace Partnership (URGP) will be officially launched at the ParkCity conference in London.

It will work to bring together a range of government departments and agencies, local authorities and community and environmental groups to work in partnership to create, manage and promote sustainable green spaces in towns and cities.

“Urban greenspace” is a term used to describe natural habitats – from street trees to open grassland, heathlands and woodland – in and around towns and cities.

Greenspace provides a wide range of social, economic, health and environmental benefits, including the creation of wildlife habitats, noise reduction, sustainable drainage and flood control, cooling of buildings and the built environment, improved air quality, and opportunities for sport and recreation.

The URGP will aim to:

  • demonstrate the value and awareness of the impacts and outcomes of greenspace in and around towns and cities;
  • disseminate best practice and case studies;
  • enable innovation and knowledge transfer;
  • provide a network of research and evaluation sites;
  • identify gaps in knowledge and priorities for research and dissemination; and
  • provide a link to research services across the UK.

Tony Hutchings from the Forestry Commission’s Forest Research agency, based at Alice Holt Lodge near Farnham in Surrey, is the co-ordinator of the URGP.

He said: “The use of greenspace in towns and cities is increasingly being seen as having a vital role to play in helping to regenerate them.

“This can involve, for example, transforming a neglected area of derelict ground into a park where people can meet, walk, talk and play.

“The URGP will play a vital role in raising the awareness, impacts and outcomes of urban greenspace.

“We look forward to working with a range of parties from all sectors to establish more urban greenspace and realise the benefits it offers.”

Organisations interested in joining the URGP or being kept in touch with its work and development are invited to contact the partnership.

Further information about the Forestry Commission’s work on urban regeneration and land reclamation is available from the Forest Research website.

Source: Forestry Commission press release

Date: 19/03/2009

Trees: More than just carbon sinks


“In the absence of trees, our communities would simply collapse,” states Andrew Dokurugu, a project officer for Tree Aid tells BBC News.

Speaking from the charity’s West Africa offices in Burkina Faso, he explains how trees are vital for poor rural villages to survive in the long-term.

“We are looking at ways to promote sustainable agriculture and agroforestry,” he says.

“This will help ensure that the remaining trees are well looked after and that communities have access to the trees they require.”

Using the Family Trees and Land Use scheme in northern Ghana, one of Tree Aid-led projects that have helped 600,000 villagers, Mr Dokurgu outlines why so many communities in West Africa are facing tough times.

“Rural settlements located close to big cities have particularly difficult challenges,” he says.

“Urban developments damage the environment and remove trees for use in the cities.

“This quickly deprives rural areas of their sources of food, fuel and other tree products.”

Rising urban populations and expanding cities makes life tougher both inside and outside the city boundaries.

Tree Aid was set up in 1987 by a small group of foresters who were keen to use their expertise to help people in Africa, explained programme director Tony Hill.

“They saw that trees, potentially, were a way for poor rural families to help themselves in the long-term,” he told BBC News.

And in 1997, the charity established a permanent office in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Mr Hill described this development as a “step change” for Tree Aid, which has now planted more than 6.5 million trees.

“We were then able to work directly with local partners,” he said.

“Projects always have a beginning and an end, but the needs of the villagers do not end when the scheme finishes – particularly when you are dealing with trees.

“You need to have the continuity of attention, care and protection if you are going to deliver the benefits long-term.”

The need to plant and manage the region’s tree stocks is becoming increasingly important, Mr Hill says.

“If you go back several decades, the wild tree resources were rich enough for villagers to get more or less all of the products they needed without having to plant trees.

“Now, growing populations and an erratic climate means that villages have to invest in trees, rather than letting nature do its own thing.”

However, it is not simply the case of telling people to plant saplings and sitting back and waiting for them to grow.

Some cultures, Mr Hill reveals, have traditionally considered planting fruit trees as taboo: “People believed that if you planted a tree, you were bound to die before it bore fruit.”

But he says one of the biggest challenges is the issue of land tenure.

“For farmers, it is like a declaration of ownership. Planting trees says ‘this is my land and it is going to be mine for a long time.

“For many people, it is difficult to negotiate adequate secure tenure and get permission from all of the relevant authorities.”

This is one area where Tree Aid has been focusing its efforts, especially for women, who generally are not allowed to own land.

“In the drylands of Africa, where Tree Aid operates, the real value of trees is the products that they can take: fruits, leaves, bark and roots, firewood, building materials,” Mr Hill says.

He adds that healthy trees also help maintain the area’s ecosystems.

“People rely on trees to recycle nutrients, prevent erosion and maintain moderate water flows.

“Without trees in the landscape, you cannot have a sustainable farming system.

“Without farming, you do not have any life in these communities.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 19/03/2009

UN: World’s forests facing tough tests


World forests face the dual challenge of climate change and the global economic crisis, a key UN report says.

On the BBC News website, environment reporter Mark Kinver said it suggested that although the economic slowdown might reduce deforestation rates in the short term, it was also likely to lead to other problems.

One concern, would be a lack of investment in the sector and in forestry management.

The study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was published on Monday.

It is timed to coincide with the start of UN World Forest Week.

CTS Nair, one of the report’s lead authors and the FAO Forestry Department’s chief economist, said the economic crisis was having “tremendous impacts – both positive and negative”.

“You will find the forestry industries in a number of countries almost on the verge of collapse,” he told BBC News.

For example, he said the construction of starter homes in the US and Canada had fallen from about two million units at the end of 2005 to less than 500,000 now.

This had led to a dramatic fall in the demand for wood products, which was affecting forest-based industries and export markets in developing nations.

However, Mr Nair added, the downturn was having some beneficial effects.

“We are seeing a decline in the prices of soya beans, palm oil and rubber etc,” he explained.

“The prices have fallen drastically, so this means that the incentives for cultivating these crops have also gone down.

“As a result, the pressure to clear primary forest stands is also declining.”

The report, State of the World’s Forests 2009, also showed that the health of forests varied from region to region of the world.

“We see advances being made in places like Europe, but losses being made in places like Africa and especially developing countries,” Mr Nair observed.

“For example, what we see in the case of Africa is that there is a growing population yet the productivity within agriculture has remained extremely low.

“There is very little diversification in terms of sources of income so there is a very high dependency level on land use and natural resources, such as timber.”

“On the other hand, in places such as Asia where there has been rapid economic growth, people have moved out of agriculture to some extent and the pressure on the land has declined.”

In recent years, the importance of the world’s forests as carbon sinks has featured prominently in global climate policy discussions.

An initiative called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd), which is likely to involve developed nations paying tropical forest-rich nations not to cut down trees, appears to be gaining support.

Mr Nair gave the scheme a cautious welcome: “In theory, it is an excellent idea but its implementation is going to be extremely tricky.

“If you look at the people involved in forest clearing, it is different people in different regions.

“For example, in Latin America, it is largely cattle rangers and soya bean planters. In South-East Asia, it is palm oil and rubber plantations.

“What we find is that it is not the smallholders, it is the big players who are working within a global market.

“So far, only the issue of what it is trying to achieve has been examined, the issue of how we are going to implement it has not really been discussed or examined.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 16/03/2009

New tree species found in car park


Scientists who discovered a new species of tree standing beside a country road have named it “no parking” after a sign that was nailed to the trunk, according to a report in the Independent newspaper.

A team of botanists found the tree in a north Devon lay-by while working on a project in which 14 new species and hybrids across the British Isles were discovered.

It was known locally as the No Parking Tree and the nickname has stuck as it is listed in Watsonia, the scientific journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, as no parking whitebeam.

The tree’s scientific name is Sorbus admonitor, meaning to admonish or tell off, and it grows at Watersmeet, between the villages of Lynton and Lynmouth.

The research project, led by Dr Tim Rich, head of vascular plants at the National Museum Wales, involved academics from the University of Wales, Bristol University, Exeter University, Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Source: Independent newspaper

Date: 06/03/2009

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