TNRC Blog Corruption and the challenge to protect human rights and the environment: What can conservationists do?

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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Corruption and the challenge to protect human rights and the environment: What can conservationists do?

A sticky, complicated set of problems

In a context of increased recognition of the need to conserve biodiversity in ways that respect and promote human rights and social justice[1], systemic and high-level corruption continues to threaten both human rights and biodiversity conservation. Yet, despite adverse impacts both in the environment and human rights sectors, corruption is usually looked at either from an environmental perspective, or from a human-rights perspective. As each can adversely affect the other, there is much to learn from addressing corruption from both angles together.

Environmental crimes, so often facilitated by corruption, frequently occur within a complex landscape influenced by social, political, and historical factors. Corrupt actors are able to perpetuate and reinforce their access to resources and their power, putting conservation actors in a challenging situation. Corruption facilitates environmental crime by eroding and preventing accountability. In turn, these factors lead to a vicious cycle of higher levels of corruption and weak institutions, preventing independent checks and balances and further undermining all the objectives that conservationists care about.

Seeking solutions

In a recent Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) workshop, WWF staff and invited experts wrestled with the challenges of fulfilling our responsibilities to respect and promote human rights in conservation in contexts where corruption gets in the way. This was the first in a series of workshops TNRC will be organizing to provide a forum for discussion about the impact on nature and people of systemic and high-level drivers of corruption and to examine ways to address these complex problems.

What we're up against

The participants all recognized that corruption remains a critical and often-overlooked obstacle to biodiversity conservation and equitable and sustainable development. Corruption can be systemic in countries where the rule of law is weak, where accountability institutions are ineffective, and the laws covering corrupt activity are on the books, but poorly enforced. In such contexts, corrupt activities can occur at all levels of conservation and natural resource management (NRM) governance, from permit issuance to bribing decision-makers who are in a position to undermine regulation of the sector.

In addition to harming the environment, corruption also has devastating impacts on human rights. It undermines the functioning and legitimacy of institutions and processes, and it deprives countries and communities of resources that could be used to fulfil human rights. Corruption can uniquely exacerbate the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and by environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) when corruptly-driven resource exploitation limits opportunities to participate in design and implementation of public policies and programs, and limits access to resources to defend themselves and to seek justice and reparations. The challenges to IPLCs and EHRDs also increase when actions they take risk exposing corrupt actors and networks. Corruption can also further marginalize other groups, including women who already face power inequity and rely on environmental resources for livelihoods and well-being.

How can we respond?

In light of these unique challenges, action is growing among civil society organizations to combat corruption by promoting human rights. The interconnection between good governance, human rights, and sustainable development underlines the increasing importance of expanding anti-corruption efforts beyond the typical information provision and enforcement focus to identify evidence of human rights abuses in conservation and NRM sectors. Efficient integration of corruption risks and human rights risks can help enable a more holistic assessment of cross-cutting challenges, serve as a springboard for action and facilitate the development of right-sized and practical anti-corruption actions.

Participants agreed there are no simple answers, but efforts are emerging on a number of fronts. Some of the suggestions conservation and NRM sector practitioners might consider in navigating the nexus of environment, corruption, and human rights include the following:

  • Strategic litigation to create disincentives for failures of enforcement and accountability, lack of transparency, and public engagement in the conservation and NRM sectors. Legislation and commitments for addressing systemic corruption and human rights in conservation are not enough. The nature of the systemic corruption-human rights nexus where formal laws covering corrupt activity exist, but enforcement is absent or weak, means that courts become an essential arena for contesting rights and empowering those affected. Where effectively enforced, litigation could lead to increased transparency and public engagement.
  • Strengthening resilience to corruption in partner organizations where staff are at the front line of efforts against environmental crimes and exposed to corruption risks. Robust screening practices in the recruitment and selection of frontline staff, training, efforts to improve working conditions, and on-the-job support (including psycho-social support) can all contribute to greater resilience, and this approach helps build trust and cooperation with frontline agencies and staff, which can help reduce the risks of corruption. Combining anti-corruption and human rights training can build connections with staff when the link between their human rights and employment situation is recognized, fostering individual and organizational ethics and values that are more resilient to corruption, thereby helping nurture values-based compliance.
  • Conservation agencies and public oversight bodies can use traditional compliance exercises focused on information disclosure and corruption risk to explore human rights risks in conservation and NRM. These exercises can be the beginning of the process to close loopholes and present valuable opportunities to gather helpful information about environmental harms and human rights risks required to implement human rights compliance policies and controls.
  • The United Nations human rights mechanisms also offer a range of processes that conservation organizations can use to address environmental-related corruption through a human-rights lens. The benefits are many: bringing more attention on environmental issues from a human-rights perspective, putting forward a focus on the human cost of corruption, and contributing to strengthening UN processes such as Universal Periodic Review, the Treaty Bodies, and the Special Procedures.

As with any effort for change, in the end, the “right” effort against the corruption that undermines conservation and human rights is the one that is feasible and appropriate to the context, the specific conservation objective, and the resources available. Considering the impacts of corruption on both biodiversity conservation and the protection of human rights more holistically is likely to enable a stronger, more effective response to the problem.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit You might want to take the 90-minute Introduction to Corruption and Anti-Corruption and Natural Resource Management course, available in English, Spanish, and French.

TNRC would like to thank the Voices for Diversity project and the WWF Wildlife Crime ACAI (Area of Collective Action and Innovation) with whom we collaborated for this workshop, and Achiba Gargule, a TNRC partner at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre who is co-organizer of this workshop series. We also extend our sincere thanks to the excellent resource people who joined the discussion: Kanyinke Ole Sena, Alastair Nelson, Tamara Leger, Morten Andersen, and Rocio Paniagua.

[1] The right to a healthy environment, which was recognized by the UN Human Rights Council on 08 October 2021, makes it clear that the environment and human rights are interdependent

© James Morgan / WWF

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus