Liberia Fights Illegal Logging with Barcodes

After 14 years of civil war, child armies, and natural resource exploitation, Liberia is rebuilding. In part by using barcodes to keep track of its timber exports.

Liberia. 17 June 2011. Liberia hosts nearly two-thirds of West Africa’s remaining rainforests, and they are under threat – from pirate loggers and warlords. Poverty and the remnants of a years-long civil war mean locals will take any means to make a living. Including plundering the native forests.

Smuggled hardwood timber has made its way to homes across Europe, the US and some parts of Asia. But a glimmer of hope is peeping between the branches.  Starting in early 2013, the EU will require all companies importing timber to demonstrate that it has been legally harvested. And they will monitor this has been done by scanning every tree – with a barcode scanner.  It’s as simple and as foolproof as checking out at the supermarket, says Ivan Muir, the local boss of SGS, a Swiss specialist in certification systems. The system also allows checks on timber export permits and royalty payments to the Liberian government.

Initially funded by USAID, the scheme has covered all the country’s commercial logged forests for the past two years. Every tree in a forest with a logging concession must be tagged with a unique barcode. When that tree is cut, the action is recorded and new tags are attached to each log. Every log that turns up at a port has to be traceable back to a stump in a forest. Conservation International (CI) is optimistic about the project, even though as it admits, there are “people with very large check books” happy to try and bribe government officials. “Liberia has an opportunity to show the world how it is done,” says Frank Hawkins, who heads CI in Africa, “They start from a fresh place.”

It won’t be easy. In 2010, Global Witness revealed that the Liberian government had leased a fifth of its forests to a British company, Carbon Harvesting Corporation. The company didn’t want to harvest the trees. It wanted to profit by selling Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) carbon credits. Since then, UK police arrested Carbon Harvesting’s director, Mike Foster, on suspicion of bribery, and a Liberian official in Monrovia was dismissed.

But now, with the barcode system on all concession timber, and greater control over export permits – again based on the barcodes – there is hope that the Liberian experiment could not only help save the local rainforest, but set an example to other rainforest exporting countries. Not all observers see it as a positive though.

“We estimate that $16 billion investment has come into Liberia from abroad in the past five years, and it has all been linked to exploiting natural resources,” said Alfred Brownell, of Green Advocates, an environmental-law NGO. But as he warns, simply having a barcode won’t fix things unless the system is applied all the way down the supply chain. “Ministers are drunk with the idea that multinational investment will bring economic recovery. But it won’t. The multinationals just take our resources,” he told Yale e360.

Once a tree is felled, the barcode tag is reaffixed - but keeping the operators on the job is not always easy

Once a tree is felled, the barcode tag is reaffixed - but keeping the operators on the job is not always easy

Muir admits there are reasons for optimism – but cautious ones.  The two main problems are foresters misreading the barcodes, causing confusion on the database, and ignorance about how fast the trees grow. Which means for real sustainability, the loggers are guessing, even with the barcodes.

“We don’t know what the true sustainable harvesting rates are and how much logging we should allow,” he admits. And it remains to be seen whether the system will prove robust enough to defeat illegal loggers” But at least they are trying.

Original story at

Photos courtesy Fred Pearce, BBC, DebrisTech