TNRC Blog Five ways of thinking about how to address corruption in conservation and NRM

Image representing TNRC's four focus areas: wildlife, fisheries, forests, and finance

Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

Harnessing knowledge, generating evidence, and supporting innovative policy and practice for more effective anti-corruption programming

Five ways of thinking about how to address corruption in conservation and natural resource management

“Recover with integrity”

On this year’s International Anti-Corruption Day, all focus (as with most of the world) is on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their theme for 2020, “Recover with integrity,” recognizes the increased risks for corruption that this pandemic has inevitably caused, from emergency measures to relaxed safeguards and reduced oversight. As we recover from this devastating public health crisis, it is critical that we do so with integrity and with anti-corruption approaches in mind.

In conservation and natural resource management, there are unique challenges. The illegal wildlife trade, the spread of zoonotic diseases, and increased risks for future pandemics in a rapidly changing climate are at the forefront of many conservationists’ minds. The impact of COVID-19 has affected natural resource supply chains, increasing illicit activity, and it has crippled communities that rely on environmental tourism. Addressing corruption in conservation and natural resource management is more crucial than ever – and there are many ways of thinking about how to address this complex issue.

Here are five themes that have emerged in the first two years of the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project, along with resources to help you learn more. Want to share your thoughts or experience with any of these approaches? Email us at [email protected].

1Look at the whole supply chain and identify your corruption challenge within it

Corruption can affect the entire natural resource supply chain, from access and acquisition of the wildlife, fish, or forest products, to permitting and processing, to import/export and ultimate sales. Whether licit or illicit, the journey from the environment to the household may involve numerous corruption risks in addition to cross-cutting issues like human rights abuses and convergence with other crimes. Governments’ discretionary power to regulate permits for legal harvest or trade in wildlife, fish and forest products makes these lucrative markets particularly vulnerable to corruption in the form of permit fraud, abuse of access rights, and other inside agreements. Even within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), forms of permit abuse using false information, unofficial payments, and stolen or expired documents are often facilitated by corrupt officials and unsecure systems.

The challenge for natural resource management and conservation practitioners is not necessarily to take on all these corruption issues at once, but to be aware of the types of corruption that may affect the objectives they are trying to achieve, from the landscape to the global supply chain, and make informed decisions about the best way to adapt activities to address these issues.

2Consider the complexities of law enforcement

Law enforcement is often the first thing we think of when we think of addressing corruption’s impact on natural resources, especially due to the linkages between environmental crimes, illegal trade, and other organized crime. The challenge of corruption is that the systemic features that facilitate and drive it may also undermine law enforcement measures to address it. Especially in already repressive political environments, or where governance and the rule of law are weak, law enforcement-based approaches to corruption are at best incomplete and at worst could create risks of abuse. Careful risk analysis and anti-corruption strategies within resource management and enforcement agencies are critical to a corruption-informed approach to working with law enforcement. Sometimes, though, it may be possible to support enforcement-related approaches outside of a compromised system, for example by using whistleblowing mechanisms that can link a corrupt act or environmental crime to an external legal system.

3Follow the money

Following the illicit financial flows from natural resources is one key to stemming corrupt and criminal activity. Illicit trade in wildlife, timber and fish is estimated to generate profits between USD 62.5 billion and USD 316.4 billion annually. Often this money is laundered using various methods as it travels through banks, corporations, real estate, and other means in the international financial system. One form of money laundering, called trade-based money laundering, is especially common in the illicit wildlife trade because natural resource products are easy to co-mingle with other licit and illicit goods. These actions are almost always facilitated by corruption through trade mis-invoicing and bribery to avoid inspections. Because “follow the money” approaches are well-established in the anti-corruption and integrity sectors, the natural resource sector can readily leverage those resources to employ anti-corruption strategies at the prevention, detection, and enforcement level.

4Understand social norms and informal power

While much of anti-corruption work focuses on changing the incentives for participating in corruption (costs go up when enforcement is effective; benefits go down if fake permits are more likely to be detected or proceeds of corrupt actions can’t be laundered), corruption also is a function of norms and expectations about what is acceptable or possible. Understanding these driving factors, such as expectations that “everyone is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” or informal rules that prioritize taking care of kin over formal rules of the civil service, can help unlock better understanding of ways to address the corruption that undermines natural resource outcomes. Gendered perceptions and experiences of corruption may also present a different picture of corruption and its impact — among its victims as well as women entrusted with power to protect nature — as will those of communities that use and rely on natural resources in different ways.

5Contextualize corruption in the political dynamics affecting conservation work

This list started with the advice to identify a specific corruption problem. That’s important for making sense of corruption that undermines conservation, biodiversity and natural resource management outcomes. But of course it’s never that simple. Corruption at any point in a natural resource value chain, or in the institutions tasked with managing natural resources, does not exist on its own. It’s driven and facilitated by an array of factors in the local, national and international political economy — powers and interests that shape the opportunities for and viability of any strategy for addressing corruption. Thinking and working in a politically-informed way — and recognizing that even the environment that we are trying to protect and sustain is a product of power and political dynamics — puts the objectives we are trying to achieve, and the challenges we face, in a more complete context. Addressing corruption effectively may require challenging our own assumptions about corruption or seeking new and unfamiliar strategies and alliances to address the power dynamics that drive the corruption that threatens people and the planet.

These five themes represent important insights for how we think about and work to address corruption in conservation and natural resource management, but there is much still to explore. What does it look like for conservationists to build new alliances to address corruption? What challenges might we encounter as we bring different expertise, priorities and language to shared priorities? How do the themes of inclusive conservation and human rights fit into this work? These are all themes we’ll be exploring in the coming year.


© Karine Aigner / WWF-US

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