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Giving Every Tree an ID

Once transformed into an amorphous bundle of planks, wood can be hard to identify let alone certify as legal or sustainably-harvested. This fungible, shape-shifting quality has made illegal logging relatively profitable and illegal wood easy to launder. Various information-based tools are being used to respond to the challenge of illegal logging -- from crowdsourcing to map illegal forest concessions, to attaching barcodes to tree trunks so that timber can be tracked down to the point of export. PROFOR recently released a survey of ICT applications in the field of forest governance (Forest Governance 2.0). The hard copy should be available in the next couple of weeks.

In June, representatives of Double Helix dropped by the World Bank to present a tool that applies genetics to forests and the timber supply chain. The technology is based on the fact that every tree in nature already has a unique "barcode" -- its own DNA -- which tells it apart not only from different species but from identical trees growing on different plots and different parts of the world. Theoretically plant geneticists could tell where a particular tree grew up (in a legal forest concession or in a protected area for example) with about 50 km accuracy.

But how would you possibly create a genetic inventory of the world's trees large enough to answer questions about the origin and species of wood products traded globally?
Double Helix just released a paper outlining its vision for a global genetic database for trees (based on the open source model) that would require extensive funding and international collaboration. The report also describes situations in which simpler questions can already be answered with existing data and technology (for example: Does this product come from this stump? Is this timber of the declared species?) to validate or invalidate certain claims.

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