Protect Forests from the Illegal Timber Trade

As much as 23% to 30% of hardwood lumber and plywood traded globally could be from illegal logging activities.
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Illegal logging is the international trade of illegally extracted timber, which is often used to make products such as paper, packaging, and furniture. Timber can be illegally harvested, transported, processed, bought, and sold in violation of national regulations.

The U.S. is one of the world’s largest importers of illegal timber. Surprisingly, licensed companies play a major role in the illegal trade – as most illegally sourced timber is traded openly after being laundered into legal supply chains or unidentified as illegal. As much as 23% to 30% of hardwood lumber and plywood traded globally could be from illegal logging activities.

U.S. whistleblower laws contain reward provisions for those who step forward with valuable information on wildlife trafficking. The laws provide monetary rewards for U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and NGOs, who blow the whistle on wildlife and environmental crimes that result in a successful prosecution. Leveraging this system will revolutionize the detection of crime, radically increase effective law enforcement, and help protect our natural resources.

The Problem

The illegal timber trade is decimating forests around the globe, a crime known as illegal logging. Illegal logging refers to the international trade of illegally extracted timber, which is often used to make products such as paper, packing, and furniture. Timber can be illegally harvested, transported, processed, bought and sold in violation of national regulations. In the global market for illegal timber, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest importers. Surprisingly, licensed companies play a major role in the illegal trade – as most illegally sourced timber is traded openly after being laundered into legal supply chains or unidentified as illegal.

Our forests are a natural resource that, if destroyed, can take decades or more to return. This illicit activity not only threatens the biodiversity of forests, but also destroys habitats and threatens local livelihoods. The illegal felling of trees is also having an adverse economic impact. According to INTERPOL, illegally harvested timber is estimated to be worth between $51 and $152 billion USD, annually.

The Solution: Activate Whistleblowers

U.S. whistleblower laws have rewards provisions for those who step forward with valuable information on illegal logging. The laws provide monetary rewards for U.S. citizens, non-citizens and those outside of the U.S., and public sector organizations whose disclosures lead to successful prosecutions. Leveraging this system will revolutionize the detection of logging crime, radically increase effective law enforcement, and help protect biodiversity of habitats around the world.

U.S. whistleblower reward laws can be used to bolster enforcement efforts worldwide. Crucially, a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act banned the importing, exporting, buying, and selling of illegally sourced plants, and requires companies trading in most wood products to submit formal declarations of the species and origin of harvest. Cargo without accurate declaration can be seized, and companies found to have provided false information in their paperwork can be prosecuted and fined.

Moreover, the False Claims Act (FCA) concerns fraud that results in a financial loss to the federal government, and applies to customs violations on imports into the U.S. Covered customs violations include false statements such as the undervaluation and/or misclassification of goods entering the U.S. Under the FCA, whistleblowers are entitled to between 15% and 30% of sanctions obtained.

Both the Lacey Act and the False Claims Act, as well as other laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Endangered Species Act, have strong whistleblower protection and reward provisions. The Lacey Act and other laws that provide rewards for whistleblowers who come forward about illegal logging operations, which threaten the health of forests around the world, are the key in this important fight to protect our habitats.

In one critically important case from October 2015, U.S.-based Lumber Liquidators was fined over $13 million in the largest Lacey Act fine to date for buying wood that had been illegally logged in eastern Russian forests. The company knowingly purchased the wood from a Chinese merchant despite its illegal origins, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The case marked the first time that a U.S. company had been convicted of a felony related to timber under the Lacey Act.

Other companies have also faced serious penalties for Lacey Act violations. In 2017, an essential oils company based out of Utah was ordered to pay $760,000 in fines for illegally harvesting rosewood in Peru.

Also in 2017, the DOJ reached an agreement with Popp Forest Products to destroy 24 pallets of timber that had been harvested in violation of Peruvian law. The agreement ensured that illegal timber would not enter the U.S. stream of commerce. As part of the agreement, the company also agreed to bear all costs associated with the transportation, destruction, and disposal of the seized timber.

In an earlier case from 2012, famed Gibson Guitar Corp. entered into a criminal enforcement agreement with the United States to resolve a criminal investigation into allegations that the company violated the Lacey Act by illegally purchasing and importing ebony wood from Madagascar and rosewood and ebony from India. The company was required to pay $300,000 in fines, as well as pay a $50,000 community service payment to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and implement an internal compliance program.

Enforcing regulations and requirements regarding the importation of particular types of wood could have a powerful impact on curbing the illegal timber trade.

The Role of the National Whistleblower Center

The National Whistleblower Center is a non-profit organization which works to educate potential whistleblowers about how to step forward with information using existing whistleblower programs connected to illegal logging, provides legal assistance to whistleblowers, and advocates for stronger whistleblower protections in Congress and other policy making forums. 

NWC has a successful track record of promoting and using whistleblower laws to:

  • Empower individuals to step forward with valuable information on illicit activity, including wildlife trafficking and more,
  • Enable whistleblowers to work hand-in-hand with legal counsel and seek justice while maintaining confidentiality, and
  • Help protect our forests and wildlife by creating a cycle of accountability and funding.

There are viable legal pathways that can be leveraged to combat the destruction of forests and ecosystems. The Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program provides an avenue to utilize our expertise in whistleblower laws, paired with on-the-ground knowledge of partner NGOs and whistleblowers, to combat illegal logging. Learn more about how citizens can engage in everyday whistleblowing to protect the environment from NWC Executive Director, John Kostyack, in his webinar presentation featured in Environmental Law Institute and International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement’s webinar “Collecting and Reporting Evidence of Environmental Law Violations: Tools That Work for Citizens” from June 13, 2019, video included here.

Toolkit Materials

Confidentially Report Illegal Logging

If you have information related to illegal logging, submit a report using our secure, confidential intake form, and our attorneys will review your case for free. The Whistleblower Legal Assistance Program helps connect whistleblowers with legal whistleblower attorneys. You can get the help you need submitting the information you have to appropriate law enforcement officials and learn about your eligibility for monetary rewards under the law.

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