TNRC Blog - Lessons from Building a WWF Regional Initiative to Reduce the Impacts of Corruption on Conservation Goals in Latin America

Lessons from building a WWF regional initiative to reduce the impacts of corruption on conservation goals in Latin America

One year has passed since WWF Latin America and the Caribbean (WWF LAC) and its Amazon Coordination Unit (ACU) took on the challenge of initiating WWF LAC’s Anticorruption Regional Initiative (LACRI). LACRI was created out of the realization shared by WWF LAC offices that conserving the world’s most biodiverse land and seascapes, from Mexico to Argentina, and safeguarding the wellbeing of the communities that live in them, is impossible without confronting the ever-growing pressures from corruption and organized crime.

Latin America has some of the world’s highest perceived levels of public sector corruption, with one in three public service users reporting having had to pay bribes. The region is also experiencing rising levels of criminality, consistently featuring among the top three hubs for 11 out of the 15 global illicit markets, especially drug trafficking. Corruption and criminality permeate into the environmental sector and have put LAC amongst the top regions for non-renewable resource crime (concerning mainly illegal gold) as well as wildlife crime (including fish and forests). Devastatingly, the region is also the most violent against environmental defenders, representing over three-quarters of global attacks and deaths of environmental activists in the past years, targeting mainly Indigenous leaders.

In this context, actively addressing corruption and crime is a prerequisite foundation for effective and ethical environmental conservation, and WWF LAC has stood up to the challenge.

LACRI was inspired and supported by the USAID-funded Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) Project, led by WWF US, which aims to integrate anti-corruption knowledge into the environmental conservation sector. TNRC supported WWF LAC offices to strengthen their capacities for the adoption of anti-corruption methodologies, such as corruption risk assessment and political economy analysis, and enabled them to develop program elements to address corruption’s impact within illegal fishing, mining, logging, and wildlife trafficking for the first time. As part of TNRC’s wrap-up, LACRI emerged with the task of maintaining and institutionalizing momentum on anticorruption in the LAC region.

In its one year of existence, LACRI pushed forward the anti-corruption agenda within WWF LAC and achieved some important results. One of them is the establishment of a community of practice on anti-corruption, which has opened regular spaces for knowledge and experience exchange amongst WWF LAC Offices. Together with WWF UK, LACRI also facilitated the identification of potential anti-corruption entry points for WWF LAC offices and captured their existing anti-corruption experiences through an internal report. Sharing these achievements and insights at several key strategic planning opportunities has helped position anti-corruption more prominently within the WWF network and beyond.

Looking back on this past year, there are many lessons and reflections about what it means to address corruption from an environmental organization’s perspective in Latin America, and what still needs to be done to increase WWF LAC’s effectiveness in this space.

 Lesson 1  There are multiple meanings and understandings of corruption among conservation practitioners, which may affect whether and how we approach the issue.

As Latin Americans, we commonly associate corruption with grand political embezzlement or cronyism scandals, which are a frequent occurrence throughout our region, and which require sophisticated investigations or large-scale whistleblowing and leaks to uncover (e.g., Panama Papers). This view of corruption makes it seem like we have little room to act, as it lies largely outside our scope and capabilities as conservationists.

However, through TNRC and LACRI, WWF LAC Offices have started to see that corruption in natural resource management involves a wide diversity of actors, and that it comes in multiple shapes and forms that are more directly related to the contexts and issues that we are used to grappling with. Across Latin America, corruption can be found in the exploitation of loopholes found in environmental laws and regulations; in the lack of transparency on how procurement processes, environmental assessments, concessions and privatization processes are decided; in the severe underfunding of environmental institutions; in weak enforcement and policing of environmental resources that lead to bribery; and in irregular permitting and licensing practices that lead to overexploitation of natural resources, to name a few. Using situational analyses, corruption risk assessments, and political economy analysis, WWF LAC Offices have begun to understand the multiple manifestations of corruption, and how they intersect with our conservation work. This has opened an opportunity for us to actively engage in the anti-corruption space, and to understand that there is no room for inaction.

 Lesson 2  An obstacle to addressing environmental corruption is fear of its risks and implications to the safety and integrity of our organization, but there are ways to cope

Standing in the most violent region for environmental defenders, fearing the safety and reputational risks from tackling environmental corruption is only natural. As part of a large global conservation NGO, LACRI and WWF LAC Offices must uphold the rigorous safeguards, due diligence, and safety protocols that characterize our network, and the potential consequences of confronting corruption are a constant concern. While being fully cognizant of those risks and adequately preparing for them, WWF LAC Offices have started to devise ways to address corruption without jeopardizing the integrity of our organization or staff.

The strategy involves reducing the possibilities and incentives for corruption within our areas of work, by tackling its drivers and facilitating factors, such as lack of information and transparency. For example, WWF Peru has developed an electronic permitting app that enables small-scale fishers to easily obtain boat departure permits, combined with a WhatsApp chatbot that provides information and tips on how to denounce corruption in the fisheries sector. With these tools, fishers can get required documents and they can get information that helps them resist or report corruption when they encounter it instead of being shaken down for bribes. Similarly, Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (the WWF partner organization there) has applied a dual approach to reducing illegal and unreported fish discards, by advocating for improved traceability legislation and installing an electronic system to improve transparency. These successful examples highlight how transparency, information and technology can become powerful allies in removing the smoke screens behind which corruption hides.

 Lesson 3  Anti-corruption is synonymous with collaboration

As we begin to navigate the environmental anti-corruption space in Latin America, we have had the privilege to meet and work with other organizations in the social justice and governance sector, such as Transparency International (TI) and the Basel Institute on Governance, from whom we have much to learn and to whom we have much to offer. Their deep understanding of corruption, law, justice, transparency, and human rights complement our expertise on environmental conservation, making us all more effective against corruption that affects the environment. Multiple WWF LAC Offices have already benefited from these partnerships, including WWF Colombia and Transparencia por Colombia’s work on identifying corruption in environmental norms and regulations in Colombia and WWF Brazil and Transparencia Internacional Brazil’s investigations of corruption in large infrastructure projects in the Amazon.

LACRI and WWF LAC Offices are also members of the Countering Environmental Corruption Practitioners Forum, launched by WWF, the Basel Institute on Governance, Transparency International, and TRAFFIC, to provide connections for conservationists and anti-corruption actors to work across disciplines to address environmental corruption. In addition to those partnerships, LACRI has opened the possibility for WWF LAC Offices to connect and support each other in the implementation of anticorruption methodologies and to discuss topics of regional concern, such as jaguar trafficking, fisheries crime, and more.

 Lesson 4  WWF is a strong and welcomed new player in the anti-corruption field.

An investigation to identify potential entry points for WWF LAC on environmental crime and corruption matters, led by LACRI and WWF UK, revealed that LAC Offices and our wider WWF network have multiple strengths that can position us as global leaders and partners in the anti-corruption space within Latin America and elsewhere. Beyond our strong expertise on the environment, ranging from species conservation to sustainable livelihoods to climate change, we have a continental and global presence and network and over 60 years of work protecting nature in more than 100 countries, of which 11 are in LAC. This has given us a unique ability to influence global, regional, and national public policy, and to advocate for just causes such as the fight against corruption. Beyond our international presence, we are also active on the ground, in the territories and seascapes that are contested by corrupt actors, giving us a first-line opportunity to create and support change. Most importantly, we understand the value of collaboration, and our WWF network is enriched by thousands of partners, from local communities to governments and the private sector. Together, we can amplify the impacts of all of our actions.

 Lesson 5  Beyond a theme, anti-corruption is a transversal line of action and a cross-cutting conservation issue, which requires interdisciplinarity, leadership, and investment.

Upon reflecting on the role and future of LACRI, it has become clear that effectively addressing corruption goes far beyond developing projects that apply an anti-corruption lens to particular supply chains, species, or landscapes. It means that addressing the impact of corruption must be incorporated into all our projects, office and network strategies, management procedures, and core values as an organization. Considering the magnitude of the challenge that this implies, particularly for a large global organization like WWF, this requires a strong leadership and vision to enact change. It also requires interdisciplinarity, which can be achieved by fostering new partnerships, but also by bringing in new talent with diverse backgrounds and experiences in disciplines outside of environmental conservation. Finally, it needs dedicated time and resources to build capacities and experiences over time, beyond the limited timeframes of projects.

The creation of LACRI has been an important step in that direction, inspired by the vision of WWF LAC and ACU leaders, the TNRC Project and our growing portfolio of anti-corruption actions. However, much more is needed to sustain and grow the initiative into the future and to make anticorruption part of our DNA as an organization. WWF is committed to continuing down that path.

© Christian Braga / WWF-Brazil

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