LONDON (Reuters) - Deep in the world's tropical rainforests, workers are hammering thousands of barcodes into hardwood trees to help in the fight against illegal logging, corruption and global warming.
The plastic tags, like those on supermarket groceries, have been nailed to a million trees across Africa, southeast Asia and South America to help countries keep track of timber reserves.
Helveta, the British company behind the technology, says the barcodes will help firms comply with tough laws on importing sustainable timber into the United States and Europe.
They could also play a role in fighting deforestation, which accounts for about a fifth of global emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide. The issue will feature in global climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
"We bring transparency and visibility where historically that has probably been limited at best," Patrick Newton, Helveta's chief executive officer, told Reuters.
The company, which has just secured another 3 million pounds ($4.88 million) in funding from investors, has put barcodes on trees across the world, including in Bolivia, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, Malaysia and Peru.
The computerized system is less prone to fraud than traditional paper records, carries live data and can help governments to collect more timber taxes, Newton said.
While the barcodes can't prevent criminals from chopping down trees, the system makes it hard for them to process, sell or export the wood, Newton said.
Officials in remote forests use handheld computers to scan the tags from the moment a tree is felled to its processing and export, and the live data is put onto Helveta's secure database.
Every tree above a certain size in a plantation is given an individual barcode. When a tree is cut down, another barcode is attached to the stump and more tags are nailed to the processed wood to allow customs officials to audit exports at the docks.
Government officials and companies can track individual trees through the supply chain and view computerized maps of forests on the database. Timber leaving a forest or factory without tags will immediately be viewed as illegal, Newton said.
Illegal logging costs timber-producing countries 7 billion euros ($10 billion) a year in stolen wood, lost taxes and lower prices for legally-sourced products, the World Bank estimates.
It also takes an environmental toll. Damage to forests raises the risk of fires, flooding and damage to plants and trees that act as a "sink" to soak up carbon dioxide, Britain's Meteorological Office said in a report last year.
Helveta hopes its technology could help countries taking part in a proposed scheme to protect the world's forests as part of the fight against global warming. That is likely to form part of any global climate deal agreed in Copenhagen in December.
The scheme, called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), aims to increase forest cover to soak up carbon dioxide emissions blamed for rising seas, extreme weather and melting glaciers.
It may include a market-based element where traders buy and sell REDD credits from forestry projects that lock away carbon.
However, trading based on the number of trees in a forest needs close auditing if the market is to work, Helveta says.
"The problem with forests is that it is very hard to validate what is truly out there," Newton said. "If you are trying to back that asset...you need to be able to make sure that what you think is securitized is really there."
Editing by Mark Trevelyan