Corrupt government officials and informants who fear retribution. These are some of the challenges faced by citizens who become involved in helping enforce illegal logging regulations.

Three panelists discussed these and other forestry crime issues at March 21 webinar on “Citizen enforcement in the forestry sector”– Melissa Blue Sky, of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL); Ruth Noguerón, of the World Resources Institute and  Shelley Gardner, Illegal Logging Program Coordinator, USDA Forest Service. Each touched on the issue.

Interpol estimates that illegal timber comprises 15-30% of the global timber trade. That amounts to between $51 and $152 billion worth of wood every year.

A study of illegal timber harvesting in Peru found that exporters are adept at finding new ways to evade export controls, Blue Sky said.

For example, harvesting modalities not always subject oversight in Peru. Timber is “red flagged” as illegal but exported anyway– often to countries without timber regulations. In some cases, documentation about the source of the timber is manipulated.

“In many cases, it involves that active participation of government officials and until they are held accountable for that, you don’t get at the root of the problem,” Blue Sky said.

Noguerón said the World Resources Institute has developed a program that provides online tools for monitoring forests. Volunteers use a DNA sampling system to collect tree specimens and a mobile application to submit data. Satellite images identify areas where the tree canopy is thinning.

She worries about the volunteers when they identify problems in regions where the government doesn’t have the capacity to act on them. That can put communities at risk, so the group is looking at what legal safeguards exist to protect them, Noguerón said.

Gardner talked about Interpol’s Project LEAF: Law enforcement assistance for combating illegal logging and forestry crimes. The agency has also formed a Forestry Crime Working Group for member countries.

She said her agency has been trained in the application of whistleblower protections and sees the approach as a “useful tool.”

After the event, Scott Hajost of the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program added that US whistleblower reward laws with international application  like the Lacey Act, the False Claims Act and the Foreign  Corrupt Practices Act “are powerful legal enforcement tools in in the fight to stop illegal timber trade and need to be fully implemented.”

The event was sponsored by Environmental Law Institute, the National Whistleblower Center, and the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement.