Using big data to track illegality in the global timber trade

The tropical timber trade has a bad name. For many consumers it means crime, corruption and environmental degradation. And not without good reason: the illegal production and trade of timber from the rainforests of South East Asia, the Congo basin, West Africa and the Amazon has been a major driver of habitat and biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, human rights abuses and lawlessness.

Yet the timber industry is a major source of revenue and jobs across the developing world. In Brazil alone, the annual extraction of 13 million m3 of hardwood logs from the Amazon generates more than US$ 3 billion in revenue and jobs for more than 200,000 people. In many places this revenue plays a key role in keeping the forests from being cleared completely.

Separating the good from the bad

How, then, to harness the benefits that well-managed, more sustainable timber operations can bring the people and economies of rainforest regions, while rejecting illegal, unsustainable practices? A recent and unprecedented surge in awareness of illegal timber in major consumer markets gives hope that such a turnaround is possible, with the US Lacey Act Amendments of 2008, the 2013 EU Timber Regulation and Australia´s 2014 Illegal Logging Prohibition Amendment Regulation making trade in illegal timber a punishable offence.

Yet political good will alone is, of course, not enough — companies and customers buying tropical timber need accessible and affordable ways to know what they are buying and how to distinguish “clean” from “dirty” tropical timber. Simple solutions are urgently needed to trace the origin of timber imports — while the trees are still standing.

Putting big data to work

BVRio´s Responsible Timber Exchange ( is an innovative solution to screen timber and timber products from one major source, Brazil, for illegality along the national supply chain: their Due Diligence and Risk Assessment system. Combined with the mapping of international trade flows offered by Trase it has the potential to bring about a step-change in the speed and facility with which buyers of tropical timber in countries around the world can identify legal suppliers with confidence. BVRio and Trase are teaming up to make such a timber supply chain intelligence system possible, starting with Brazil but working to include timber exports from major exporting countries across the tropics.

How would it work?

The Due Diligence and Risk Assessment System and Trase are highly complementary. They are also similar in that the power of both systems rests not on new and costly traceability and chain-of-custody systems, or on field surveys, but instead on tapping into a wealth of existing but underused data.

BVRio´s system uses a big data approach to combine huge numbers of government records on timber concessions and transport licenses and sales, together with police records of fraudulent activity, satellite records and other data, to estimate the risk that a given supply-chain actor (logging company, sawmill owner, processor, trader) is engaged in some form of illegal practice, thus tainting any shipment that has passed through that actor’s hands for domestic consumption or export.

Trase, in turn, is driven by publicly available international trade data, including customs data and bills of lading, as well as information on supply chain logistics. These material flows are brought to life on the Trase platform by powerful data visualizations that illustrate and measure how sustainability and illegality information in regions of production transmit down supply chains to other actors, including traders, manufacturers and retailers in consumer countries.

By combining the beta versions of both tools it will be possible to immediately visualize how exports of timber from individual logging operations in Brazil can be connected to international consumers via sawmill operators and exporters — at the same time showing how “clean” timber shipments may be tainted by the risk of infringements and illegal behaviour by actors along the supply chain. This integrated approach will be particularly useful to facilitate due diligence efforts for compliance with the EU Timber Regulation and the Lacey Act, contributing to the objectives of the EU’s 2003 Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, especially in countries that do not yet have a comprehensive and functioning information system in place to assure the legality of timber.

The combined approach could also help to promote improved forest governance. Tropical timber producing countries developing Voluntary Partnership Agreements with the EU will be able to not just detect risks of illegality but also identify legal sources. As those Agreements are being developed, the BVRio and Trase platforms can be used to test standards for legality being developed and to identify progress in the interim.

Watch this space for future developments as we seek to expand the coverage of Trase to encompass trade in tropical timber and other commodities, and unlock new insights by integrating the innovative risk screening developed by BVRio with the Trase platform.

The Trase platform shows how radically different pictures can emerge of the propagation of risk along a supply chain depending on whether a shipment is or is not contaminated when it passes through the hands of an actor with a known record of illegal activity. Because the timber that is traded by a given supplier is sourced from multiple localities, and processed by multiple sawmills, assurance of legality of one timber lot does not guarantee that the next timber lot sold by the same supplier will meet the same levels of legality and environmental compliance. Clicking on the flow map of timber traded in the Brazilian state of Pará accesses an interactive platform with an example data set. Selecting a specific node (whether logging concession or sawmill) highlights the trade flows associated with that node, as well as the level of risk associated with that node based on BVRio’s illegality assessment (red, orange, green).

This blogpost is a collaboration between Trase and BVRio.

Trase (Transparency for Sustainable Economies) is a powerful new sustainability platform that enables governments, companies, investors and others to better understand and address the environmental and social impacts linked to their supply chains. Its pioneering approach draws on vast sets of production, trade and customs data, for the first time laying bare the flows of globally traded commodities — such as palm oil, soya, beef and timber.

Trase is implemented through a partnership between the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Global Canopy Programme. We work closely with Vizzuality, the European Forest Institute and many others. Trase was made possible through the generous support of the European Union, the Nature Conservancy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Swedish Research Council FORMAS and the UK Department for International Development.