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Speaking out to protect the planet

Icebergs off the coast of Antarctica
Transparency Int'l

As a global community, we have never been more aware of our need for a healthy planet. Yet many people still violate natural resource regulations, placing short-term profit before long-term sustainability and the common good. This means that whistleblowers have a crucial role in exposing abuses and protecting the environment. But their value isn’t always recognised.

Some environmental experts are being silenced by those in power. US scientist Maria Caffrey filed a whistleblower complaint in July 2019 after she lost her job for defending her research findings into the effects of climate change on US national parks. Officials had told her to remove all references to changes being attributable to human actions.

Caffrey is just one of many whistleblowers being suppressed worldwide – yet countless cases show how much we need them if we’re to safeguard the environment.

Standing up for forest protection

In 2016, a joint report by the UN Environment Programme and INTERPOL placed environmental crime as the third most lucrative transnational criminal activity, after drugs trafficking and counterfeit goods. It generates up to US$281 billion worldwide, and is expanding rapidly each year. The amount of money lost due to environmental crime is 10,000 times greater than the amount spent by international agencies on combatting it – just US$20-30 million.

The report estimates the value of forestry crimes, including illegal logging, at US$50-152 billion per year. Whistleblowers are essential to tackling these figures. In March 2018, a whistleblower report led Indian authorities to seize 60 tons of illegal timber, closing a sawmill that functioned as a logging depot. In Cameroon, where 40 per cent of the land is rainforest, conservationists are training local communities to report widespread illegal felling.

In nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, a director of the ministry managing forests wrote to the country’s president and prime minister in 2009 alleging that the Secretary General of the ministry had diverted around US$38 million from the country’s REDD+ forest protection programme. Under the UN Climate Convention, REDD+ makes results-based payments to developing countries if they tackle deforestation. But soon after exposing the embezzlement, the director was arrested.

In desperation, his family turned to LICOCO, the local chapter of Transparency International, who asked the Finance Inspectorate to launch an audit. A month later, its report confirmed the director’s claims. He was released, and the Secretary General and several accomplices were dismissed. Political resistance means the legal case is ongoing, but following widespread media and public interest, it has already brought about change. Payments now have stronger safeguards and officials know they cannot steal funds.

Shining a light on nighttime polluters

Environmental abuses are widespread in numerous contexts. When a US Coast Guard examiner inspected the ship M/T Zao Galaxy in 2019, he was surprised when a crew member secretly slipped him a note reading “magic pipe” and “damage marine environment”. The sailor was exposing the illegal dumping of unfiltered bilge water by the Zao Galaxy’s owner, Singapore shipping company Unix Line. Another crew member provided phone footage of four overboard dumpings on the ship’s journey from the Philippines – one only three nautical miles from San Francisco.

By law, bilge water – the foul liquids that collect at the bottom of a vessel – must filter through a device that monitors and limits oil content before it’s dumped into the sea. But the Zao Galaxy was using a “magic pipe” to bypass pollution control – a well-known practice enabling mariners to prioritise ease and cost-saving over environmental concerns.

The ship’s engineer allegedly insisted the discharges occur under darkness, ordered cleaning and repainting before the inspection, and pressured crew members to lie to the Coast Guard. Zao Galaxy officers also failed to document the discharges, as required by US law.

In 2020, Unix Line pleaded guilty to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and was fined US$1.65 million. In total, the US government has recovered $270 million in sanctions against ocean polluters since 1993, with 76 per cent of cases raised by a whistleblower. If the Zao Galaxy whistleblowers hadn’t exposed the magic pipe, Unix Line could have continued dumping bilge unpunished.

Tackling industrial rule-breaking

As well as protecting natural resources, whistleblowers have exposed industrial violations, whose environmental impact is less immediately obvious. In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received a whistleblower tip that car manufacturer Hyundai was importing heavy construction vehicles that violated emission standards. The EPA opened criminal and civil investigations, and found that Hyundai had stockpiled diesel engines that met outdated standards, including for harmful nitrogen oxides and particulates, and illegally imported them to the United States.

In 2019, under a settlement with the Department of Justice and EPA, Hyundai agreed to pay a US$47 million civil penalty and was given a US$2 million criminal fine for undermining human health and environmental protection.

The need for freedom to speak up

Although there’s no doubt about whistleblowers’ importance in safeguarding the environment, cases like Maria Caffrey’s show that they must have the freedom to speak up against abuses without reprisal.

Governments must encourage whistleblowers, highlighting their importance for conservation and providing them with full protection. And people worldwide must demand effective whistleblowing channels and ensure that speaking up against abuses is applauded – both within institutions and across society.

Without whistleblowers, it will be very difficult to safeguard the environment against the myriad threats it faces. However strong regulations are, the authorities need to know about violations if they’re to enforce the law and protect fragile ecosystems. That is why we must ensure that whistleblowers can fulfil their vital role. Our planet’s future depends on it.

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