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

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