TNRC Blog Understanding crime convergence to better target natural resource corruption

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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

Understanding crime convergence to better target
natural resource corruption

This post captures insights on crime convergence and natural resource corruption from a panel convened at a World Bank Global Wildlife Program and International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) Forum on 27 January 2020 in Washington, DC. The event was a rare opportunity for the conservation community to hear from a member the United States (U.S.) Intelligence Community on a topic of collective concern. Gloria Freund, who served for three years as Combating Wildlife Trafficking Lead at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), shared take-aways from a classified ODNI study that analyzed terabytes of multi-agency data on crime convergence in East Africa. Further perspectives from development, anti-corruption, conservation, and anti-money laundering experts were offered in panel discussion. For more information on environmental crime and its convergence with other serious crimes, see this 2015 INTERPOL report.

Key Takeaways

  • A 2018 U.S. Intelligence Community analysis of multi-agency crime data on East Africa confirms substantial convergence of wildlife crime with other serious crimes, especially drug trafficking. That analysis found that more than two-thirds of the actors in the wildlife crime dataset overlapped with individuals and facilitators in the narcotics dataset; about a dozen overlapped with actors in terrorist dataset and a handful overlapped with actors in the proliferation of nuclear related materials dataset.
  • Convergence is systemic and lies at the heart of how these criminal enterprises operate. Corruption greases the wheels of these crimes. Because wildlife crime is low-risk and lightly penalized compared to other forms of serious crime, criminal networks often test routes and methodologies with wildlife products before using them for higher-stakes criminal activities.
  • Current policies regulating information sharing are outdated given the scope and character of this crime. Creating a platform and mechanisms that allow unclassified information sharing and correlation is essential to more comprehensively understand the threat and enable strategic interventions to counter it.
  • If the international community is going to effectively curb environmental crime, we must focus on unifying efforts to see the entirety of this enterprise and advance preventive anti-corruption approaches as well as law-enforcement interventions.

How ‘real’ and prevalent is the oft-heard convergence factor within the illicit ecosystem?

Convergence has long been recognized, but evidence has chiefly been anecdotal, so the extent has remained a matter of debate. The recent classified interagency illicit convergence study supported by ODNI is ground-breaking in that it brings multiple forms of granular U.S. Intelligence Community data, plus other U.S. Government data, to bear on the subject. It showed that in the case of wildlife crime in East Africa, convergence is systemic. Two-thirds of the actors and networks identified with wildlife trafficking were found to overlap with narcotics networks, along with substantial intersections with terrorism and other priority threat contacts. This is important new information that can help us to better unify effort and tailor our approaches against the underlying illegal and illicit enterprise, rather than focusing piecemeal on a few sectors or commodities. The analysis indicates a need to target efforts to deter and curb network transactions with a more commodity-agnostic mindset, leaving nothing on the cutting room floor if it can illuminate this enterprise.

--Gloria Freund (former Combating Wildlife Trafficking Lead, ODNI)

How can we discern where convergence occurs to make more impactful decisions to address this pernicious, corrupting activity?

The ODNI report demonstrates the value of harnessing data on wildlife trafficking, both for itself, and because of the new, valuable window that it provides into the networks and methods used by criminal groups in other sectors such as narcotics, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Wildlife crime is a “soft underbelly of the criminal eco-system” because generally it is more detectable than other crimes where subterfuge and penalties are higher. Because of comparatively low risk, illicit actors often use trafficked wildlife products to test routes and methods that they later apply to more closely policed commodities.

--Gloria Freund (former Combating Wildlife Trafficking Lead, ODNI)

What can we gain by adopting a broader, commodity-agnostic aperture in addressing natural resource exploitation?

Merging data across multiple sectors and commodities makes it possible to see interconnections that we would otherwise miss. This is important to identifying new, better options for fighting criminal networks in a more strategic manner, including where they intersect licit industries. It also leads to a greater collective understanding of this threat. To get this done, and to ensure full and timely sharing of information, we would need to work substantively across existing silos. This would require advocacy and support from senior government officials, foreign partners, and private industry leadership, as working across silos does not come as naturally as working within them.

--Gloria Freund (former Combating Wildlife Trafficking Lead, ODNI)

You’ve observed that it is unusual for a group of intelligence agencies to come together to look at convergence issues that include wildlife. Are there signs that the relevance of wildlife for such studies is growing and how can the conservation community practically assist with providing information?

This study merged data on wildlife crime, narcotics, terrorism and WMD from the databases of different U.S. Government agencies and found that the wildlife data was the most voluminous and illuminating of all the datasets examined. In fact, it added tens of thousands of potential data points to the other sectors. However, there is also valuable information on these networks in the databases of the private sector and NGOs, so information sharing needs to go beyond the confines of government, to include the conservation, academic and other communities. This can be done through the exercise of new and non-traditional partnerships.

--Gloria Freund (former Combating Wildlife Trafficking Lead, ODNI)

What are the impacts of crime convergence on nature and people and how are they affecting the success of development initiatives in countries most vulnerable to over-exploitation of natural resources, where corruption and poor governance are prevalent? How can development assistance help to shrink the hurdles of corrupt practice that are exacerbating convergence and criminal networks profiteering from nature?

Part of USAID’s role is to build the capacity of countries on their respective development paths. Corruption and organized crime undermine gains made in conservation, natural resource management and governance. It particularly undermines communities that rely on conservation and/or natural resources for their livelihoods because unlike crimes involving illegal manufactured goods, when it comes to wildlife crime, we are dealing with a finite resource. Once species are lost, they are gone, and so are the benefits that communities can gain from their conservation and sustainable, legal use. USAID is investing in the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project because we believe that corruption is undermining valuable conservation and development gains and more attention and resources need to be focused on implementing anti-corruption approaches in conservation activities.

--Mary Rowen (Senior Wildlife Advisor, Forestry and Biodiversity Office, USAID)

Where are the profits from this trade going? Beyond trade-based money laundering, what are some other means of financial outflows from corruption in conjunction with illicit natural resource trades (such as money laundering into real estate, shell companies, and offshore banking)? Does the money from this trade support other pernicious non-state actors?

The money from this trade supports a range of pernicious non-state actors. The profits are going into real estate, shell companies and cryptocurrencies that are used to make purchases and launder money. In just one example, profits from the deforestation of Borneo wound up in the Lincoln Building in Seattle, Washington that currently houses a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office. Online sales of wildlife parts can be paid by cryptocurrencies, and the profits of this illicit trade have been laundered through shell companies in offshore havens. It is important to understand the key role of the facilitators who allow financial outflows from corruption to enter the legitimate financial system and thereby help transnational criminal groups. These facilitators can include lawyers who create shell companies and anonymous accounts, financial intermediaries, and others. We need to think about this issue in a broad way and understand the corruption of the financial community and the political system that supports criminal non-state actors.

--Louise Shelley (Director, TraCCC, George Mason University)

We’ve been focusing here on crime and how to respond to it, but crime and the corruption that facilitates it is a function of many other factors as well. What else should we be thinking about as a holistic response to the corruption that facilitates illegal wildlife trade?

Understanding the connections between various forms of organized crime and corruption is essential to support more effective law enforcement that achieves multiple objectives. But addressing the corruption that facilitates wildlife crime requires more than just law enforcement, and the TNRC project was designed to help the conservation community build a more comprehensive approach. Here are three initial things that practitioners can do:

  1. Get a micro-level, granular picture of the specific types of corrupt actions and the actors involved on both sides. Instead of seeing corruption as a big, undifferentiated problem, it’s important to understand the actors we deal with, their motivations and incentives to address the issue in a realistic way.
  2. Place that analysis in the context of macro dynamics like high-level corruption, criminality and power dynamics to assess and revise strategies and tactics to address the specific problems. For instance, a 2018 survey by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that over 50% of surveyed wildlife rangers fear for their own safety if they expose corruption. So we need test our assumptions about who can do what in different circumstances.
  3. Using this kind of analysis, build prevention as well as enforcement approaches into efforts to reduce corruption that facilitates wildlife trafficking. One example of a method for assessing challenges and designing comprehensive responses is the recently released Integrity Guide for Wildlife Management Authorities from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

--Elizabeth Hart (Chief of Party, Targeting Natural Resource Corruption, WWF)

© Meg Gawler / WWF

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