Corruption — the elephant in the room, in the fight against environmental crime.

By Delfin Ganapin, WWF Governance Practice Lead

© Deng Jia / WWF

On the eve of the 2019 Africa Union Summit, Delfin Ganapin, WWF Governance Practice Lead, counts the costs of environmental crime and corruption for the continent and calls on its leaders to increase collaboration and investment in governance and enforcement.

Lack of enforcement

Despite a huge proliferation in environmental legislation globally over the last four decades, we are failing to prevent widespread ecosystem destruction, pollution and climate change.

Last month’s first-ever global assessment of the environmental rule of law by UNEP told us why — our failure to fully implement and enforce our laws.

While we’ve delivered a 38-fold increase in environmental law and more than 1,100 environmental agreements since 1972, these measures often only exist on paper.

We have failed to invest in strong enforcement agencies and neglected coordination, cooperation and civic engagement, sometimes at great cost.

Tragically, between 2002 and 2013, growing resistance to environmental law has led to the killing of 908 people in 35 countries — including community and indigenous activists, forest rangers and government inspectors — and in 2017 alone, 197 were murdered.

And most grievously, we have allowed corruption to undermine our best efforts to prevent the world from crossing critical ecological thresholds.

No matter how good our policies and laws, corruption can render them useless. This challenging reality is the elephant in the room that we must all now face.

Counting the cost

Unfortunately, Africa’s rich natural resources provide a fertile ground for corruption. From customs officials accepting bribes to private sector collusion on resource extraction contracts, its insidious nature is a direct threat to Africa’s development.

In Cameroon, for example, according to the World Resources Institute, a benefit-sharing tax redistributing 10% of logging revenues to rural communities living in the vicinity of commercial concessions, often does not reach local communities due to entrenched corruption within governing institutions.

Globally, INTERPOL and UNEP estimate natural resources worth at least $91 billion and possibly as much as $258 billion annually, are stolen by criminals, depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities.

Illicit trade in the forestry sector alone is valued at $13 billion, and the international illegal wildlife trade — the fourth largest illegal global trade after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking — is worth up to $23 billion a year.

And overall, the wider economic impact of illegal trade in natural resources in Africa is estimated at $120 billion, equivalent to 5% of Africa’s GDP. Loss in tax revenue is about $3.6 billion and an estimated 24 million jobs are lost — about 6% of overall employment in Africa.

Environmental crime and corruption not only cost Africa hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year but also threaten the survival of many endangered species, undermine health, food security and social stability, weaken national economies, and cripple our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Gaining a better understanding

To tackle corruption effectively, we must first understand it. This in itself is a major challenge — criminals will go to extraordinary lengths to hide their activities — but without a better picture, it is impossible to design appropriate responses.

Filling gaps in our understanding requires better monitoring of government activities and programmes based on robust risk assessments; intelligence-sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, both nationally and internationally; and engaging citizens and the private sector in reporting corruption when they encounter it.

Following money flows and conducting financial audits can shed light on how corruption occurs. At the same time, government systems prone to corruption can be strengthened to help prevent problems arising in the first place.

None of these are things that can be done by one organisation or government alone. That’s why WWF has partnered with anti-corruption organizations around the world to tackle environmental crime at its roots.

With significant support from USAID, we’re collaborating on research and setting up anti-corruption missions to tackle corruption at scale. And technology is putting power into local people’s hands to help them fight exploitation.

Mind the gap

At an international level, from the SDGs to CITES, we do not lack for laws, resolutions, market incentives or good intentions, yet for Africa, there are still many gaps in the proper governance of natural resources.

Most pressingly, we need to harmonise efforts to address the complex and interconnected problems of corruption and illegal exploitation of natural resources within Africa, and between Africa and those countries importing from the continent.

Given the increased demand for forest products, for example, especially from Asian countries which do not adhere to EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Programme requirements, African countries would benefit from agreements with importing countries on transparent, responsible and sustainable trade.

Here, the revitalization of the African Timber Organization could contribute significantly to promoting sustainable trade in timber among African countries in addition to strengthening sustainable forest management principles.

And there are similar opportunities to address illegal fisheries and wildlife trade.

© WWF / Mike Goldwater

Just add political will — and proper investment

But more than anything else perhaps, the biggest challenge we face is the absence of political will.

Leaders gathering at the African Union summit this year can change this — by redoubling commitments to good governance, collaboration and sustainability, and by investing meaningfully in institutional capacity, civil society and practical action.

Without both political leadership and investment in tackling environmental crime and corruption, our efforts to ensure Africa’s natural resources flourish and benefit its citizens and economies for the long-term will come to nought.