The Hindustan Times has recently published a story on a 60-ton illegal timber seizure in Maharashtra, India that was initiated by a whistleblower. Since May 2017, over 500 tons of illegally-cut timber have been seized by authorities in the west-central Indian state. The value of the timber seized over the past 11 months is an estimated 20 million Indian rupees, or approximately $308,000 USD.
The tip-off led to not only the seizure of 30 tons each of teak and khair wood, but also the closure of an illegal saw mill that was functioning as a timber depot. The seizure demonstrates the powerful role whistleblowers play in combatting the illicit timber trade.
Whistleblowers have helped halt illegal logging in other parts of the world. In 2015, U.S. officials became aware of a massive shipment of illegal timber from a whistleblower tip. The wood came from parts of the Amazon that had been designated for protection. Because of the tip, the U.S. was able to stop the illegal shipment and the timber was seized and destroyed.
Illegal timbering is part of a global environmental crime epidemic. According to Interpol, illegal timber accounts for 15-30% of the global timber trade and is estimated to be valued at USD $51-152 billion annually. Illegal logging not only destroys ecosystems, but also threatens the rule of law. The UNODC has released a report outlining the linkage of corruption and wildlife crime, and has found those who participate in illegal logging are often able to do so through bribery of local public officials.
Because of the clandestine nature of the so-called “timber mafia,” and organized crime in general, whistleblowers are vital for stopping this kind of crime. Insiders are often better-positioned than law enforcement to detect criminal activity, and their information can help authorities efficiently uncover illegal activity.
Dr. Mahesh Patil, superintendent of the Thane rural police in Maharashtra, stated “there is need for more manpower from the forest department to control such activities as it is only going to increase.” Incentivizing and rewarding whistleblowers could be another solution to this problem. 20 million Indian rupees have already been recovered in illegal timber busts; a reward for the whistleblower might encourage more individuals to come forward in the future.
Rewarding and incentivizing whistleblowers has worked in other contexts. U.S. whistleblower reward laws have proven extremely effective in halting everything from customs fraud to insider trading on Wall Street. The tip-provider in Maharashtra came forward in good faith, as many whistleblowers do. More wildlife whistleblowers would come forward were monetary awards available.