By Chris Arsenault
RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Companies that want to buy Brazilian timber without contributing to illegal deforestation have a new tool to help them ensure stolen wood does not appear in their supply chains - a digital platform tracing the origins of wood, environmentalists said.
The Responsible Timber Exchange created by conservation group BVRio draws on government data and satellite maps to help buyers and sellers check the origins and certifications of wood.
"The platform is able to identify risks of illegality across the supply chain," Mauricio de Moura Costa, director of operations for BVRio, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We want to create a marketplace that helps buyers purchase legal timber in an easier way ... due diligence is very difficult," he said in a recent interview.
Illegal logging is responsible for about 90 percent of the deforestation in Brazil, home to the world's largest tropical forests, according to the country's environmental enforcement agency (IBAMA).
More than half of the tropical timber traded globally is thought to come from illegal logging, Costa said.
Companies that steal wood are often involved in other crimes, such as forced labor or illegal land seizures, which are known for displacing indigenous people and causing harm to the environment, officials say.
HOW IT WORKS
The BVRio platform cross references individuals and companies selling wood with official data to check if they have been sanctioned by state or federal government departments for using slave labor, not paying taxes or other environmental infractions.
To harvest wood legally in Brazil, loggers must submit a management plan to authorities indicating roughly how much timber will be cut and the status of the land it is coming from.
The platform, launched last month, analyses these management plans and other data to make sure companies using the exchange have the correct permits for extracting wood, Costa said.
The aim is to follow the timber from forests to sawmills and export markets, he said.
So far, more than 200 offers have been posted on the platform, with companies looking to buy or sell specific loads of legal timber, Costa said.
One of those firms is Amata, a Brazilian forestry company selling wood to customers in the United States and Europe.
"Amata's interest in the BVRio platform is clear: finding the best buyers for our certified wood," Dario Guarita Neto, Amata's CEO wrote in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Amata exports 90 percent of its products because the domestic market in Brazil is saturated with cheaper, illicit wood, Neto said.
Companies that steal trees from public land or protected forests have lower costs because they do not have to deal with environmental assessments, taxes or the bureaucracy of certifying their forest products.
"It is impossible to compete on the domestic market against illegal wood," Neto said.
The relative ease of illegal logging and the profits to be made from it are partially responsible for a 29 percent increase in deforestation in Brazil in 2015 after years of declining deforestation rates, experts say.
COMPROMISED SUPPLY CHAINS
While some companies have high hopes for the new platform, campaigners say BVRio relies too heavily on government data that can be manipulated by sophisticated criminals.
"BVRio might be confirming the paperwork, but the problem is whether the paperwork itself is accurate," said Daniel Brindis, senior forest campaigner with environmental group Greenpeace.
In Brazil, wood is frequently laundered the way dirty money in other countries is cleaned - by running it through legitimate businesses, Brindis said.
Woodlot owners frequently inflate the amount of timber they can harvest from their land, which allows stolen wood to enter the system and be sold to sawmills, he said.
Because of the paperwork, this wood becomes legal even if it was stolen from a protected area, said Brindis, underlining what he sees as a limit in the new platform.
"On one hand, companies using this platform are going to be better off than buying blindly from the market place," he said.
"On the other hand ... the paperwork system doesn't provide tractability from the stump to the mill."
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)