Can we all embrace global forests?

I have been often called a “tree hugger” in a mocking fashion by surrounding people who struggle to understand what I am exactly studying. Well, I accept that nickname with great pleasure and honor! Especially now, when I have been researching about global deforestation for about three months for the purpose of my research.

Deforestation is one of the urgent problems we are facing right now in the context of climate change. According to WWF 12-15 million hectares of forest are lost each year, the equivalent of 36 football fields per minute. This is quite a shocking number, considering that forests are not infinite and if we continue with the same rate, one day we won’t have any green color on global maps. While there are a number of reasons for deforestation, a very important  one is illegal logging of world’s precious forests. It was quite appalling to hear the stories and understand how multifaceted the issue of Illegal logging is. It destroys the habitats of other species of flora and fauna, including endangered ones (such as orangutans in Indonesia or Siberian tiger in East Russia), it releases carbon that are absorbed by forests or stored in peatlands, it affects water cycles and availability of drinking water in an area. Besides, illegal logging strongly affects the livelihood of local people who rely on forests; it involves issues of poverty, tribal rights, human rights, corruption, financing of military and oppressive governments. Illegal logging and trade also distorts the markets and leads to billions of dollars loss in governmental budget; it unfairly drags down  the prices of global timber and forces the businesses that try to operate in a just and sustainable way to leave the market. The other sad side of the story is that, unaware consumers from all over the world continue to buy illegal and unsustainable wood as the hunger for timber products increases every year. My research mainly aims to reveal what kind of measures we still need to implement to stop this chaos, what are the limitations of existing systems and how modern technologies such as DNA fingerprinting for timber can help to strengthen these systems.

My thesis adventures started in Barcelona, a place where two important EU institutions – European Forest Institute and FLEGT Facility (EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) are located. After gathering information on EU policies on seizing import of illegally logged wood, I headed to Hamburg, Germany, the city hosting the Thünen Institute with its laboratory specialized on extracting DNA of timber, on identifying the species and helping the governments in struggle against trade of endangered species.  The insights of experts in these institutions were very helpful to understand the issue and to see the big picture.20150203_124300    My current stop is Costa Rica, a country with big ambitions (they aim to become carbon neutral by 2021 as a whole country!), with long history of environmental conservation and birthplace of best practices when it comes to forest management. I am hosted by an NGO called FUNDECOR full of very nice, helpful and like-minded people. Like everywhere in the world, here in Costa Rica the tracking of timber is basically done through plates on individual cut timber and documentation, which can be easily falsified, lost or modified.

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The organization and the government are very interested in the application of new technologies, as illegal logging is quite an important issue even in a country like Costa Rica. Basically, right now I am working on developing a feasibility analysis of application of DNA fingerprinting for timber in Chain of Custody schemes in Costa Rica. I will use the results as a case study for my master research.

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So far, I have been lucky enough to get access to important documents and interview some officials from governmental agencies and local forest proprietors. Still a long way to go till I finish the research and obtain some tangible results.Right now, I know one thing for certain- illegal logging can be stopped only through common action of all individuals involved!