If a tree falls in one of Southeast Asia’s rainforests, is smuggled overseas, made into a table or chair, and years later thrown into the street, can the pieces be put together again?
Singapore artist Lucy Davis says the question may seem childish, but with rainforest wood from Southeast Asia a hot seller in the city-state and overseas, she felt driven to investigate how to tell legal wood, from certified companies which sell plantation-grown timber, from the illegal variety.
“The endeavor to put the wood back “together again” is a necessarily impossible, childlike dream,” Davis, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, told Reuters.
“(But) rainforest wood products are still extremely popular in Singapore. There are countless furniture stores (here) promising the best Burmese golden teak, or who promise, if you seem interested enough, that they can still get large pieces of (illegal) teak or ramin wood from Indonesia or Cambodia.”
Singapore’s timber trade has been scrutinized by green groups for decades. The Environmental Investigation Agency accuses its ports of “greenwashing” illegally cut rainforest timber from neighbors such as Indonesia, where the World Bank estimates up to 80 percent of logging is done illegally.
Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry told Reuters strict controls cover all imports and exports of rare timbers protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It said action would taken against offenders if evidence was found.
Davis’ one-woman investigation, elements of which are on exhibit at a Singapore museum, took her from the streets, where she joined trolley-pushing collectors who search for discarded tables, chairs and even rolling pins, to a DNA testing laboratory that is seeking a scientific solution to illegal logging in the region through DNA analysis.
Paternity-testing timber is more difficult than for humans or animals, as the dead-wood tissue is already degraded. But checked against a database of DNA from legal plantations, the results are an almost foolproof test for illegals, the laboratory said.
While DNA testing confirmed Davis’ wood was from rainforests in the Philippines, Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak, and Indonesia, the pieces’ different ages meant that pinpointing whether it was illegal or not to cut them at the exact time they were harvested was problematic.
Despite that fact, posing the question was important, she said. “I hope that the meta eco-political framework is clear — that the timber ending up in Singapore comes from a whole load of possibly dubious origins,” Davis said.