Countries with abundant natural resources are often plagued with endemic corruption and weak accountability. The governance crisis is not only detrimental for the protection of forests and nature, but deadly for the environmental defenders around the world. If we are serious about achieving our climate and biodiversity objectives, corruption is clearly the Hydra we must tackle. Here is how.
Despite a multitude of international and national environmental laws, the world still has a long way to go to halt widespread ecosystem destruction, deforestation and climate change. The reasons are clear: systemic corruption, weak law enforcement, poor coordination and government cooperation and limited public oversight.
And the consequences are dramatic: killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the past 15 years to reach levels usually associated with war zones, according to Nature Sustainability. At least 1,558 people in 50 states were killed between 2002 and 2017 while trying to protect their land, water or local wildlife – with murders of activists concentrated in countries with the worst corruption and weakest laws. When their physical integrity is not threatened, activists faced intimidation, travel bans and end up self-censoring (FW 246).
Forests are particularly affected. Illegal logging by organised criminal groups is estimated to be worth between US$ 30 and 100 billion annually, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL indicate. And illegal clearing of land to satisfy the growing demand for agricultural and other commodities is depriving communities and Indigenous groups of the very resources they depend on for their livelihoods.
Corruption also jeopardises global efforts to address the ongoing ecological crisis. The EU is committed to leading the way toward sustainable and carbon-free economic models and supporting vulnerable countries to follow suit. It must urgently address this challenging reality by helping to stop forest destruction at home and abroad.
Central Africa is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world, harbouring vast natural reserves, including water, minerals, oil and timber. Many of the region’s countries perform very poorly in the Corruption Perception Index. Some are facing prolonged crises, such as the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo; others, such as Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, are confronting persistent social and political tensions. Overall, the illegal trade in natural resources undermines the region’s development, threatening efforts to combat climate change, deforestation, conserve wildlife and eradicate poverty.
In these forested countries, local communities and Indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable to corruption. Collusion between powerful corporations and illegal logging are destroying their livelihoods and degrading their environment. From officials accepting kickbacks to private and public sector collusion on opaque resource extraction contracts, corruption provokes environmental havoc and destroys local livelihoods.
In CAR for instance, public officials turn a blind eye to mining companies that are cutting down forests and damaging invaluable ecosystems.
In Cameroon, Fern and its local partner Centre for Environment and Development have documented that a benefit-sharing tax intended to redistribute 10 per cent of logging revenues to forest communities seldom reaches them, due to embezzlement.
The Amazon Basin is another corruption prone region. Under the guise of agribusiness development, vast areas are being burnt to make way for commodity development, and Indigenous leaders are murdered with alarming regularity and seeming impunity.
Concrete solutions exist.
To curb corruption, we must first understand it. This requires stronger oversight of government activities, information sharing and coordination between law enforcement and anticorruption bodies, both at national and international levels, enabling civil society to monitor and report corruption, and most importantly to hold public officials to account.
Second, we need both political leadership and support in tackling environmental criminality and corruption. Enforcement of strong and just laws and policies are essential, and they need to work for all citizens.
Third, governments need to respect their commitments to manage natural resources transparently, for instance through effective implementation of obligations under the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan that seeks to boost the trade in legally sourced timber.
Countries such as the EU Member States importing natural resources from the Global South have a responsibility to join efforts to curb corruption and strengthen governance in partnership with exporting countries. This requires adopting regulatory measures to ensure that EU consumption does not further encourage environmental destruction and human rights violations. Increased demand for forest products and commodities from Asian countries also means that producer countries would benefit from agreements with importing countries on transparent, responsible and sustainable trade.
Solutions are within reach. Building transparent, accountable institutions and processes, and promoting just and inclusive management of resources are absolute priorities if we are serious about tackling corruption. And everyone must have a say, particularly resource-dependent communities.