In 2016, Indonesia has began issuing Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) licenses to verified timber products exported to the European Union (EU). The licenses ensure that all Indonesia’s certified timbers entering the EU are procured and processed legally by legal actors. Although FLEGT has raised the credibility of Indonesia’s timber products, some challenges in the implementation remain. One of the challenges is timber laundering, in which illegal timber is mixed with legal timber and both are certified as legal. The mixture can be generated by, but not limited to, claiming natural forest timber as non-state forest timber. A report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found misclassified Papua sourced timbers, claimed as Papua New Guinea origin, being traded to China. This was an utter violation to the FLEGT principles, which require all Indonesian timbers to adhere to the relevant national laws.

Differentiating legal and illegal timber is a hard-to-do task since they look physically identical. Researches have found that distinguishing illegal timber from legal timber is feasible, by identifying timber species and place of origin through wood identification techniques, using wood anatomy, DNA analysis, stable isotope and many others. However, building the adequate technical capacity to apply the technologies requires enormous fund and skilled experts.

Out of various wood identification technologies, our preliminary findings from an ongoing study suggest that wood anatomy identification is the most reliable and widely used technology in Indonesia due to its relatively low cost. This technique can identify and differentiate one wood from another based on the observation of specific characteristics, such as ring width, ray size, cells arrangement and many others. Furthermore, this technique can identify the habitat of the trees as its environment also affects the wood’s anatomy. However, this technique is unable to detect the timber’s origin.

DNA identification technique is the second most promising technology, although it is time-consuming and requires a robust genetic reference database. The DNA identification technique enables the identification and analysis of the wood’s unique inherent variation, which will later generate information on species, origin and location of the individual stump or tree. At this moment, Indonesia’s wood experts at Balai Besar Penelitian dan Pengembangan Teknologi dan Pemuliaan Tanaman Hutan (B2P2BPTH) and Institut Pertanian Bogor are still experimenting and working to finalize the method.

Next in the pipeline is the Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) technique, which examines distinct chemical compound of the wood to distinguish its genus/ species and origin. Although it is still at an early stage of development, the technique has shown potential for timber identification. However, further development of its technical capacity will require the development of a robust database to be used as reference and the purchase of various equipment, such as spectrometer and better statistical software. Compared to the DNA identification and wood anatomy techniques, NIRS could potentially identify timber much faster and be more practical for use on the field as long as the timber references available are sufficient.

These preliminary findings demonstrate the potential of the wood identification technologies to tackle illegal logging. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to invest in technological improvement. There are at least three benefits that the government can reap from this investment.

1. Knowing the origin of the wood and its species optimizes state revenues from forestry sector

Restoration Fund (Dana Reboisasi/DR) and Forest Resource Provision (Provisi Sumber Daya Hutan/PSDH) are two major sources of tax in the forestry sector. In Government Regulation No. 12 year 2014, the government imposes different charges on each timber species based on the timber’s commercial class. This regulation differentiates the levies for natural forest in three harvesting areas: Sumatra and Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Maluku and Papua and Nusa Tenggara. PSDH levy also differentiates between natural forest, plantation forest and Perhutani (state-owned forest enterprises). Thus, the ability to distinguish different timber species and track the places of origin will ensure that every concessionaire pays the correct amount of levies and avoid potential loss of state revenue.

2. The wood ID technology improves the integrity of timber legality certification

Timber laundering has reduced the integrity of FLEGT as it diminishes the legal status attached to the certification. Preventing illegal timber from entering the supply chain of legal timber will be challenging if due diligence is only based on document checklist. Similarity in the appearance of two different timber species is often misused to claim one species as another species with higher value, resulting in the inaccuracy of all information attached to the wrongly claimed timber, including its legal status. The application of wood identification technologies in timber due diligence will prevent legal claim over illegal timber, hence ensuring the credibility of legal certification, avoiding illegal logging and promoting sustainable forest management.

3. The application of wood ID technology provides strong and scientific background for law enforcement

The capability of wood identification technologies to uncover illegal logging is no myth. For instance, in the Lumber Liquidator case, the Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) leveraged on isotope analysis to prove that Lumber Liquidator deliberately imported timber harvested from Russian Far East (RFE), regarded as high-risk illegal logging country, and misleadingly labeled it as Germany origin to evade the provisions of the US Lacey Act. In the Indonesian legal system, the result of the wood identification shall be complemented with expert testimony as one of the factors in the category of admissible evidence to prove illegal logging crimes.

Realizing the rich potential of the wood identification technologies to tackle illegal logging and optimize our state revenue, the government must take the first step, which is to develop a timber database of various wood samples to support the capacity to distinguish different timber species. In Indonesia, massive sample data storage has been developed since 1914 in Xylarium Bogoriense 1915. It has an abundant collection of wood species samples from Indonesian forests, with a total collection of 3667, consisting of a wide range of wood species. This collection is a good start for further development of database to support other techniques, such as DNA analysis.

After developing the database, the government has to enhance the technical capacity of Indonesian wood scientists to apply wood identification technologies, so that the technologies can be widely used. There is still a long way to go to fully unleash the potential, especially since the development and application of these technologies require massive investment. Therefore, the government should also get support from international communities (e.g. Interpol, ITTO, UNODC, etc.) and the timber industry. Phasing out timber laundering will not only benefit the government, but also the industry players in their efforts to enhance the competitiveness of their products in the global market and the ability of the international community to combat illegal logging.