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Saving Forests with Big Data and Forensics

Thirty Hills forest from above

We are losing forests at a rate of 27 football fields a minute. That is a startling number.

But the biggest problem for the world’s forests is not the outright clearing of forests, known as deforestation. It is degradation. Picture a forest where many trees are slashed, tree limbs are scattered on the ground, the surface of the forest is cut up by long gullies, and the river water is clouded by soil that has eroded. That’s degradation.

Degraded forests are a problem, as they don’t have the ability to help keep our air and water clean, provide wildlife with shelter and food, or capture carbon.

One of the biggest drivers of forest degradation is illegal logging, which is impacting some of the world’s most biodiversity-rich forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin, Russian Far East and Southeast Asia that are prime habitat for elephants, tigers, jaguars, and other iconic wildlife.  Some of this wood reaches the US and unsuspecting customers. WWF partners with others to harness the power of technology and big data to shine a light on these destructive acts.

Forensics for Forests

One challenge in detecting illegal wood trade is that many wood species look alike. Sometimes wood species are mislabeled due to human error. Sometimes they are mislabeled to avert trade restrictions on certain rare wood species, or to circumvent a particular country’s tariffs on certain species or product types.  Regardless, if a product’s species type is not accurately declared, it could be an indicator of fraud and, possibly, illegal logging.

Companies may unknowingly be using wood that has been illegally harvested or traded to make floors, kitchen tables, guitars, and other products. Other companies may be well aware they are doing this but do not know or care why doing so is bad for forests and the people who depend on them.

That’s why WWF and World Resources Institute are leading a project to compare wood species claims for products that are sold in the United States with wood anatomy testing of those same products. We are partnering with scientists at the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Lab, who are using forensic wood anatomy testing to do a research study evaluating the accuracy of product marketing descriptions that include wood species names. With a powerful magnifying lens and other tools, they compare the anatomical structure of a wood sample with species in reference libraries against the species listed in the product description. 

Our hope is that this type of research can illustrate the need for companies to ramp up their due diligence efforts to ensure legal and responsible sourcing, and to ensure that they confirm the species they are sourcing and accurately describe it to customers. We also hope the results will highlight the need for more federal and other sources of funding for wood anatomy testing, and help law enforcement agencies better distinguish between wood species as they strive to enforce CITES and the US Lacey Act, the primary US policy to prevent the trade of illegal wood and paper products in the US.

Big Data

Workers processing wood in Puerto Maldonado

Another way we are using technology to tackle illegal wood trade is by tapping into big data analytics to help flag suspicious timber imports. For example, we are analyzing trade data to identify log exports from countries that have known export bans. This type of analysis has been used by others, but not as quickly or accurately as it could be done. Often, there are discrepancies between national-level trade data and international trade data, such as the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics database. And thousands of lines of export and import data must be analyzed line by line.

To address this, WWF and TRAFFIC have partnered with data scientists at Virginia Tech University. These scientists are analyzing publicly available data to create a software tool and algorithms that could be further developed by law enforcement agencies and others to flag suspicious timber shipments. Focusing on a subset of countries and CITES-listed timber species, we will produce a set of tools and a proof of concept that will be shared for further development.

One simple action
WWF helps combat illegal logging on many fronts. For example, we help companies source more sustainable and legal forest products.

There’s also one simple step you can take to help stop illegal logging: buy products with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label. The label means the product is from a forest that is responsibly managed. Fundamental to this type of management is that timber is harvested legally.

FSC logo

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