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  • Published on February 3, 2021
A teak tree is sampled in Laos during DNA sampling training. Photo by DoubleHelix

Ken Hickson

Author, Advocate, Advisor. Promoter of The Art of Sustainability & The Art of Travel, with a Focus on Forests and PEFC99 articles Follow

3 February 2021

By Ken Hickson for Focus on Forests

  • Project leader, Professor Andrew Lowe from the University of Adelaide, says the DNA tracking will help to reduce the A$42.8 billion illicit trade of teak.
  • “This is a powerful means of restoring trust and confidence in chain of custody systems,” says Darren Thomas, Double Helix Tracking Technologies.
  • ‘Biophysical and social innovation is critical to addressing challenges we face in creating, restoring, managing and protecting forest resources for human benefit,’ says Dr Nora Devoe, ACIAR Forestry Research Program Manager.

Double Helix Tracking Technologies and the University of Adelaide are working together on the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded project to deliver innovative solutions to smallholder forest owners in the Asia Pacific region.

ACIAR projects show how forestry innovations can have an impact and support better environmental and economic outcomes.

This ACIAR funded project involves the use of a DNA-based chain of custody system to secure legally harvested teak from Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar.

ACIAR research has successfully developed cost-effective DNA tests for one of the most valuable timbers in the world: teak. This brings authorities a step closer to shutting down the illegal trade in timber from Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Local partners engaged to provide support for the teak project included the Ecosystem Conservation and Community Development Initiative (ECCDI) in Myanmar and the Forest Research Development and Innovation Agency (FORDIA) in Indonesia.

Samples of teak sent to the University of Adelaide were used to develop a DNA reference map of genetic variation for the valued species. Samples were sourced from natural forests in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, and plantation teak stands in Laos and Indonesia. Work is underway to apply the same process to teak from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Completed in 2018 and building on the work of two previous projects, this ACIAR research activity aims to reduce the trade in illegal timber for the economic benefit of producer countries and to improve the long-term sustainability of teak production.

‘Biophysical and social innovation is critical to addressing challenges we face in creating, restoring, managing and protecting forest resources for human benefit,’ says Dr Nora Devoe, ACIAR Forestry Research Program Manager.

Project leader, Professor Andrew Lowe from the University of Adelaide, says the DNA tracking will help to reduce the A$42.8 billion illicit trade of teak.

Project partner DoubleHelix organised the sampling through local forestry partners and trained workers to take the tree samples and geo-reference each log.

DoubleHelix Chief Executive Officer, Mr Darren Thomas, says foresters in Southeast Asia are now improving forest management and documentation practices to authenticate the source of teak but the global movement of illegal timber made further assurance necessary.

‘One of the primary ways that illegal timber enters the market is through being mixed into legitimate supply chains, accompanied by fraudulent documents,’ Mr Thomas says.

‘In some countries, teak logs confiscated from illegal logging groups are resold into the market rather than destroyed so this has become controversial for customers in the European Union (EU), which requires illegal timber to be excluded from supply chains completely.

‘While mixing of legal and confiscated timber can be controlled in certified supply chains, the EU has raised doubts as to the reliability of paper verification.’

The DNA map shows at least five distinct genetic clusters for teak in just one of the Southeast Asian countries studied. Allowing for a 100 km tolerance, this DNA map accurately traced back 99% of blind-test samples to their claimed origin.

In Indonesia, DNA was used to trace plantation teak timber along the supply chain from the Perhutani Forest Management Unit at Cepu, Central Java.

‘We trialled two methods that worked for large-scale industrial state-owned plantations in Indonesia—the first to check that logs at different points in the supply chain came from the same tree, which proved 90% accurate,’ Professor Lowe says.

‘The second tested whether logs matched the genetic profile of their source plantation and this was 100% accurate, and that’s what we recommend for large-scale and smallholder plantations.’

‘The Adelaide laboratory also applied DNA fingerprinting methods to match those blind samples of sawn timber from the log yard and cut tree stumps, and accurately traced each piece of timber to its individual tree stump in the forest or plantation,’ says Mr Thomas.

While DNA testing has become more cost-effective to support document verification audits, Mr Thomas says it’s not necessary to run tests on every shipment of timber.

‘For a consignment of sawn teak worth A$280,000 the DNA testing costs A$5,500, so it’s a case of figuring out how often that needs to be done and for what level of sales to sustain confidence in the system and encourage legal trade,’ he adds.

Results of the project were delivered at workshops in Indonesia, Myanmar, the Solomon Islands and Laos, and training in field and laboratory procedures was provided to project partners from Indonesia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Myanmar.

“This is a powerful means of restoring trust and confidence in conventional chain of custody systems,” says Darren Thomas, Double Helix Tracking Technologies.

A DNA chain of custody system could also be designed to support a simplified, low-cost certification or third-party verification program to support smallholders’ sale of timber from community forests into higher-value markets.

DNA tracking has previously been used in the USA to successfully prosecute the illegal trade in bigleaf maple. It is hoped this teak DNA map will be used in the same way to abolish illegally traded teak and support a sustainable teak supply chain.

Read more from ACIAR here on developing the DNA-based chain of custody systems for legally-sourced teak.

Go to Double Helix Tracking Technologies for this article and more about its work around the world.

Ken Hickson is the author of seven books, including The ABC of Carbon and Race for Sustainability, as well as Managing Editor of two online magazines, ABC Carbon Express and The Art of Travel. Please join his Focus on Forests LinkedIn group for much more.