9. Investigating Transport, Processing & Trade

The paper trail

As it moves from the point of harvest to the point of export, timber must be accompanied by documents that attest to its source. The scope and complexity of this official ‘chain- of-custody’ system varies between countries. In Brazil, for example, there is an electronic database of ‘credits’ that are exchanged from producers onwards through the supply chain. In other countries the system exists predominantly in hard documents, and may not extend to secondary processing. Analysing this data can provide evidence of violations through the supply chain, and also enable the connection of illegally-harvested timber to export.

In Brazil, for example, Greenpeace was able to identify sawmills that had purchased timber covered by credits from areas within which infractions had been found. From the sawmills they were able to identify companies selling the timber to export markets (see Case Study 8).

In Indonesia the connection between harvest and sawmills is provided by raw material plans formulated by sawmills. These record, on an annual basis, the source of the logs processing companies plan to use in the year ahead, and retrospectively account for the supply base in the previous year. The plans reference companies by name, which may include concessions where operational infractions or other forms of illegal logging have been identified. From the sawmill, the timber can potentially be tracked to market by a number of methods, including covert meetings, or working back from the market (see sections that follow). Access to this data should be significantly improved by the case won by the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia against the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, under Indonesia’s Public Information Disclosure Act (see Freedom of Information).

CITES Export Permits, where they can be accessed, provide another stream of useful information, as they are issued to exporters. In one example, CITES Export Permits from Peru were cross-referenced against official government enforcement reports, allowing more than 100 exports linked to forest in which serious illegal activity had occurred to be identified (see Case Study 6).

The potential to replicate these forms of investigations will depend on the availability of different datasets, their accessibility and their reliability. Investigations in Brazil and Peru demonstrate that complex illegalities at source, laundering and opaque supply chains can be linked through to export if the data is available.

Observational fieldwork

In states where data is unavailable, of insufficient quality or hidden behind bureaucratic walls, parts of the supply chain can be illuminated through direct observation. Physically tracing logs from source throughout the entire chain is logistically prohibitive, if not impossible. But log markings (see Log Markings) can help identify the source of timber downstream, even as far as markets in different continents.

EIA has identified timber sourced by the Vietnamese military throughout the supply chain, from forests in Laos to border checkpoints and beyond, using tags unique to it. The same method can be used in other countries, provided companies and officials make use of the individualised markings they are legally required to, and investigators are able to decipher them.

This methodology can be employed where investigations begin at this stage and are aimed at identifying violations of transport and export violations, rather than illegalities at the point of harvest. For example, EIA has documented and highlighted violations of restrictions on exports of logs via Myanmar’s northern land border with China, without also tracing the wood back to the point of harvest (see Case Study 7).

It may also be possible for investigators to obtain information from log truck drivers or people who live or work along timber transport routes. Such conversations should be undertaken with caution, but can be productive in determining where timber is coming from, or where it is going. Individual junior workers might also be approached at logging sites, log ponds or restaurants. If this is done, it is essential to have a reasonable cover story to justify both the investigators’ presence in an area, and their interest in logging activities. If investigators are posing as tourists, it is reasonable for them to ask questions out of general curiosity, though questions cannot be too detailed or probing. If the investigators are or could be perceived to be locals, they could pretend they want a job with the logging or transport company, which can justify quite probing questions.

It should be possible to determine if such conversations or interactions are likely prior to the trip, depending on the itinerary and nature of the investigation. Decisions over how this is approached should be built into pre-trip planning (see Mitigating risks in fieldwork). It may be desirable to record such conversations covertly, if the equipment available makes it safe to do so (see Recording Covert Evidence).

Even where investigating the paper trail has produced clear evidence of illegality and made connections through the supply chain, this form of observational fieldwork can provide further information. It should be viewed as a second phase of the form of fieldwork identified in Section 7 Investigating Harvesting: Fieldwork, employing similar forms of preparation, approach and risk mitigation (see Mitigating risks in fieldwork).

It can be particularly effective where timber supply chains are consolidated, with the same companies engaged in logging also selling timber directly to export markets. This can be seen in the DRC, for example, where Greenpeace has identified companies engaged in illegal logging selling logs and sawn timber directly to European states and the US. There the market connection was made through undercover methods and interrogating trade data (see Section 10), but observational fieldwork in ports can provide leads to guide these next stages in the investigation.

‘Observational fieldwork can be particularly effective where supply chains are consolidated, with the same companies engaged in logging also selling directly to export markets’

Undercover investigations

Covert, or undercover, investigations can prove to be the most effective methodology at this stage of the supply chain. Posing as timber traders has been used to significant effect by Global Witness, EIA, Earthsight and others over the past 20 years. It has provided the information that has exposed the inner workings of corruption and an unprecedented insight into the nature of illegal trade.

However, conducting formal face-to-face meetings and company visits undercover require significant knowledge, skills and experience, and carry significant risk. As a result, these advanced forms of covert investigation should not be attempted without training from experts. However, where carried out remotely by phone or email, undercover methods can be used safely without specialist training. In 2010, for example, undercover telephone research helped make a supplier connection between Indonesia and the UK (see Case Study 11).

By this stage of an investigation, a company profile should have been developed for any company of interest, including contact details (See Building company profiles). Where these have been obtained, investigators can safely make an undercover approach remotely (by phone or email). Investigators might choose to pose as a prospective buyer or seller of wood, as a journalist or as an academic researcher. Thorough research is essential when choosing and informing a cover story (see Developing a Cover Story).

The following are some of the types of information that can often be obtained by approaching companies in this way:

  • Species they use.
  • What products they sell
  • What volume of products they sell.
  • The source of the timber used in their products.
  • To whom or to which countries/regions they sell their products.
  • The extent to which their supply chain is integrated.For example, whether they are involved in harvesting upstream, and/or exporting downstream.

Measures should be taken to ensure that the real identity of the investigator cannot be traced. They should not use their real name, personal email address or phone number. Careful records should be kept of all communication with companies, and the data obtained through these means should be properly catalogued for future reference. For methods that can be used to record covert interactions (see Recording Evidence Covertly).