Gallery: Barcoding Millions of Trees Could Relieve Global Warming

barcoding trees, forests, rainforests, helveta, protect trees, barcodes, deforestation

It’s a simple idea. While we might not usually think about it this way, tropical rainforests are the world’s giant wood store, and just like shoplifters lurk in your local Target, treelifters scheme to fraudulently help themselves to timber supplies. Your local retailer protects themself by electronically tagging merchandise and keeping a hawk’s eye on inventory, and Helveta, a British tech company, feels that forests can benefit from the same methods. So far, the company has hammered plastic barcodes (or barkodes, if you will) onto a million trees across Africa, southeast Asia and South America to help countries keep track of timber reserves, and they’re not done yet.

The purpose of the barcodes is to help firms comply with the stringent laws on importing sustainable timber into the United States and Europe, but they could also fight deforestation, which amounts to approximately one fifth(!) of global emissions of carbon dioxide. The electronic system is less prone to fraud than old school paper records, and can even help governments to collect more timber taxes. What’s to stop criminals from simply cutting the barcodes off of the trees? Put simply, it’s not the barcode itself that deters would-be tree-stealers, it’s the fact that leaving the forest carrying a huge log without a barcode is very difficult to do – hopefully so difficult that it’s no longer worth it to criminals.

In addition to lowering the risk of fires, flooding and damage to forests, tagging the trees makes good business sense. Illegal logging costs timber-producing countries $10 billion a year in stolen wood, lost taxes and lower prices for legally-sourced products (as estimated by the World Bank).

Via Reuters

Treehugger also has some outstanding videos on the subject here.


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  1. November 11, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Printed paper tags would fade over time pretty quickly in the tropics.

  2. kandimba July 21, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    If it works, just do it.

    Ricardo Coelho

  3. Gwenny July 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    How about just using the ring pattern to identify a tree instead of bothering with labels that can be removed? Isn’t the ring pattern pretty much unique to each tree, like our finger prints?

  4. Yuka Yoneda July 16, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Hey AaronT,

    Good point about the plastic. That’s obviously not a good thing. But what it good is that the tags are tiny (hopefully they are also made from recycled plastics although I am not hopeful on that point). In terms of the actual tagging process, here’s what Reuters said in their original article:

    Officials in remote forests use handheld computers to scan the tags from the moment a tree is felled to its processing and export, and the live data is put onto Helveta’s secure database.

    Every tree above a certain size in a plantation is given an individual barcode. When a tree is cut down, another barcode is attached to the stump and more tags are nailed to the processed wood to allow customs officials to audit exports at the docks.

    Government officials and companies can track individual trees through the supply chain and view computerised maps of forests on the database. Timber leaving a forest or factory without tags will immediately be viewed as illegal, Newton said.

    I agree with you that people on the black market might try to bootleg the tags, but Helveta seems to be on top of their game and even criminals do cost/benefit risk/rewards analysis to see whether making fake tags, hacking into the system and all the other hassle will be worth it. What my article is basically trying to say is that I think a lot of criminal WON’T think it’s worth it and quit. Guess time will tell, but thanks for bringing up your great points.

  5. AaronT July 16, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Two problems here: PLASTIC tags and little benefit.

    The plastic part should be obvious on its own, so I won’t say any more. The benefit problem I see here is that shoplifters at stores are controlled by RFID and controlled entrances/exits, not just by the tags on the products themselves. I fail to see how tagging these trees will somehow control whether those trees are poached or not.

    If anything it will lead to a new black market in plastic tags and IDs. So this seems like a horrible waste of energy and resources for something that will have little perceived benefit.

  6. StructureHub July 16, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Way to go Helveta. I hope implementation of your simply / genious idea actually works!

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