TNRC Blog The COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, and the socio-economic impacts on local communities

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

The COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, and the socio-economic impacts on local communities

Governments are today faced with an unprecedented public health emergency that has forced them to close borders and lock down cities and communities. But as serious as the health crisis is, the pandemic is also a socio-economic crisis, with impacts that may be longer term. These impacts can include increased corruption risks, and strategies are needed to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in such a way as to help prevent corruption. TNRC convened a Virtual Panel on “The COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, and the socio-economic impacts on local communities” on December 14, 2020 to examine some of these impacts and mitigating strategies. A recording is above, and a PDF of the slides from the event can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 is not just an immediate human health crisis; it also poses a long-term socio-economic crisis for many local communities, threatening their healthcare, food supply, livelihoods and well-being. Many of these threats pose increased risks of corruption.
  • Calls for wildlife trade bans in response to COVID-19 can drive the trade underground and heighten corruption risks.
  • There are growing tensions on issues such as land tenure, characterised by lack of consultation with local communities and disregard for the challenges they face during the pandemic.
  • Weak governance systems are characterised by corruption, and growing attention on the links between wildlife use and human health present an opportunity to strengthen governance of wildlife and natural resource use by local communities.
  • Strong governance systems are needed that are equitable and responsive, and it is urgent that mechanisms for input by local communities in the formulation of those governance systems be strengthened.
  • COVID recovery packages can be used as opportunities for fuelling corruption, and anticorruption strategies must be an integral part of green recovery responses.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the sustainability of natural resources and local communities?

Dr. Duan Biggs, a Senior Research Fellow with Grffith University, noted that, even before the outbreak, weak governance and corruption already undermined sustainability of natural resources and impacted negatively on local communities. The pandemic is now having even more severe impacts on food security and livelihoods, including those communities that live in rural areas and depend on protected areas and the tourism economy around them. Declines of more than 75% in bookings with tour operators in Africa have forced these communities to find alternative sources of income and food. Between February and June of this year, the Uganda Wildlife Authority recorded 367 poaching cases across the country - more than double the recorded level last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been called a “perfect storm” for corruption. In a crisis environment where governments need to spend large amounts of money to get equipment and resources out to areas in need rapidly, corruption has flourished, and it is often marginalized communities that suffer the most. There have been cases of over-pricing of emergency goods such as food and PPE, with various companies and contractors trying to make money out of the crisis.

How can governance of natural resource use by local communities be strengthened?

Because the wildlife trade is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be one of the reasons for the pandemic, Dr. Biggs believes that there is a real opportunity now to strengthen governance of wildlife and natural resource use by communities as the world takes stock and rebuilds from the COVID-19 outbreak. This means re-examining who makes the decisions over wildlife trade, how rules are implemented, how effective they are, who benefits, and who bears the cost.

Those systems with weak governance are characterised by corruption. Systems with good governance, on the other hand, have two key characteristics among others - they are equitable and they are responsive. Equitable governance processes are inclusive, meaning that the people affected by rules have a voice in determining what those rules are. There is a serious challenge in the way governance is taking place now, where local voices affected by rules governing natural resource use often do not have a mechanism for inclusion. When rules are put into place, there is often elite capture and corruption around the implementation. Responsive governance processes are those that are adaptable to changing conditions and diverse contexts. Because local communities are often not included, the contextual diversity that needs to be incorporated into policy-making is not accounted for, making responsiveness slow. In response to this pandemic, there is a real opportunity to strengthen these two characteristics of governance by strengthening the voice and the participation of rural communities in policy decisions.

The urgency to strengthen mechanisms for input by local communities into formulating rules around wildlife use and trade is even greater now. This needs the involvement of the officials responsible for enforcing those rules, the establishment of the structures required for community inputs to be reflected in national and international policies, and adequate resources.

What has the impact been on poaching and illegal wildlife trade?

Dr. Dilys Roe, Principal Researcher and Biodiversity Team Leader with the International Institute for Environment and Development and Chair of the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, examined the impacts of the pandemic on poaching and illegal trade in wildlife, noting there are mixed reports as to whether poaching is increasing or decreasing. There has been anecdotal accounts that point to increases in involvement by state actors, such as the army or park rangers, taking advantage of the lack of presence on the ground or seeking to supplement unpaid salaries. But equally there have been reports of improved effectiveness of anti-poaching activities due to increased police and/or army presence to monitor closed borders and travel restrictions. Overall there seems to be more evidence of an increase in poaching for subsistence purposes more than for high value commodities often in response to either a loss of income, rising costs of staple foods, or loss of jobs due to the tourism collapse.

While there have been calls for banning wildlife trade as a response to COVID-19, such bans could do more harm than good from a corruption perspective, by driving the trade underground rather than preventing it. There was some evidence of this happening in the context of the Ebola outbreak. The sheer dependence of local people on wild meat for subsistence purposes also has the potential to fuel rent-seeking behaviour from officials, powerful private actors and others who are able to control access to conservation areas that are needed by local people to be able to access wild meat.

How can these problems be addressed in the COVID recovery?

Dr. Roe noted that political attention on COVID recovery is now very high, with a great deal of attention on a green and more resilient recovery. We need to be careful that recovery strategies do not facilitate corruption. For example, there is an example of a COVID recovery package that involved providing local communities facing hardship with additional access to land for agriculture in protected areas. However, in some cases powerful actors have been encouraging local communities to seize those opportunities and then buying that land from them in order to amalgamate them into larger commercial blocks. It is critical that anti-corruption measures are built into Covid recovery strategies so that they genuinely do help “build back better”.

Other areas of potential risk include processes around permitting for harvest and trade of wildlife, who makes the decisions on those, and the potential for corruption in the process. Anti-corruption efforts will also have to consider the changing nature of the interaction between organised crime and wildlife, with criminal networks changing their patterns and activities in response to COVID. There will also be increased pressure to earn money on the side in the absence of salaries and other incomes.

What do the local communities themselves see as the negative impacts from the pandemic?

Daniel M. Kobei of the International Indigenous Forum for Biodiversity and the Executive Director of the Ogiek Peoples Development Program noted while there was initial complacency at the beginning of the pandemic due to relatively low infection rates, the pandemic now hitting Africa in a big way and prompting increasing fear in many local communities. People in these communities cannot afford private care and rely heavily on public hospitals. However, they are now avoiding going to those hospitals when they are ill, out of fear of being infected there. As a result, many are needlessly succumbing to other forms of disease. In addition, they have resorted to increasing their use of herbal medicines as an alternative.

Health care is not the only issue that poses a challenge during the pandemic. Significant loss of jobs and employment opportunities, particularly in small industries that have now shut down due to the pandemic, is widespread. This loss of incomes has in turn led to a significant increase in illegal activity, such as livestock theft. Gender issues have also come to the fore, with a significant increase in gender violence and unplanned pregnancies.

What weaknesses in governance have local communities seen because of the pandemic?

Kobei gave as an example increasing tensions regarding land tenure. In Kenya, some indigenous peoples have been evicted from their land, despite promises from the government of a moratorium on such evictions in the face of COVID. On the contrary, government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to conduct evictions from disputed land, without any consultation with the communities involved and in disregard of the difficult situation they now face because of the pandemic. In some cases, trenches have been dug around pastoral land used by local communities to stop movement of their animals into those areas. In another case, community members were arrested when they reacted to proposals by powerful government officials and companies to drill thermal wells for power generation on disputed land. People from these local communities now cannot even have recourse to go the courts, due to court sessions now only taking place virtually, and opportunities for public protests is not possible due to movement restrictions.

Further Reading

Build back better in a post-COVID-19 world – Reducing future wildlife-borne spillover of disease to humans

Conserving Africa’s wildlife and wildlands through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond

The COVID-19 challenge: Zoonotic diseases and wildlife

COVID-19 in Africa: Regional socio-economic implications and policy priorities

Indian wildlife amidst the COVID-19 crisis: An analysis of poaching and illegal wildlife trade

Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response

Beyond banning wildlife trade: COVID-19, Conservation and Development

© iStock / Jongho Shin

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