Fostering approaches to anti-corruption in the Colombian conservation sector: an interview with Isis Alvarez and Natalia Muñoz Cassolis

An interview on anti-corruption in Colombian conservation with Isis Alvarez, former Livestock Campaign Coordinator and Senior Gender Advisor at the Global Forest Coalition, and Natalia Muñoz Cassolis, Consultant on Illegal Wildlife Trade at WWF and to the Transparent Governance of Natural Resources (TGNR) project. Both are collaborating with the Exploring Responses to Corruption in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Practice initiative, incubated by the Luc Hoffmann Institute in partnership with the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project.

In Colombia, as in most countries, corruption is multi-faceted, agile and dynamic. Lacking a single universal definition, it is viewed and plays out differently depending on its context. Developing effective responses requires a better understanding of the role that corruption plays both socially and economically. The conservation and anti-corruption communities can do this by understanding how corruption enables a chain of consequences that constrains people’s options.

How have you experienced the intersection of corruption and conservation and society in Colombia? 

Isis: It is often a lack of access to services and opportunities, as well as rights denial, that drives people to illegal activities. The most vulnerable communities live in conflict areas that lack government territorial control, education, health systems and other services – their basic needs are not being met. They are not necessarily empowered to commit corruption but are rather an instrument for corrupt agents acting in more powerful circles. 

For example, land grabbing from local communities for agri-business and cattle ranching is a major driver of deforestation in tropical areas, and corrupt agents are often involved. Illicit crop expansion by organised criminal structures is another driver of land grabbing. When enforcement does take place, whether it is for legal or illegal activities, it is the people on the ground, the ranchers, who are prosecuted and not the landowners.

Natalia: Corruption and organised crime are deeply intertwined. Local communities are instrumentalised by powerful criminal and corrupt actors for either obtaining illegal gold, wildlife or timber; or for executing clearing activities (tree felling, tree burning and establishing settlements) for land grabbing purposes. The economic consequences of laundering money from these profits back into the country distort the local economy. 

In the Transparent Governance of Natural Resources (TGNR) project, my colleagues and I analysed these activities and interacted with people to identify how corruption operated in their sectors. Illegal gold mining, for example, which accounts for 43-52% of deforestation in the Pacific region and is closely linked to organised crime, involves other industries such as the supply of heavy industrial machinery, fuel and mercury. While some of the data gathered was related to illegal activities and not necessarily to corruption, it also pointed to weak links in control systems and the gap between legal provisions and reality that corrupt agents could exploit. 

Through the lens of your work, what particular challenges have you encountered?

Natalia: There is a very thin line between corrupt activities, organised crime and illegal activities. How corruption is defined is, therefore, an important issue. The TGNR project worked with the Colombian chapter of Transparency International (Transparencia por Colombia) to jointly build a definition of corruption for the project, to ensure a common understanding among team members. 

Isis: There is a direct correlation between corruption and inequality. Although there have been efforts to address corruption in the environmental sector, there have been very few efforts to address issues related to land grabbing and human rights violations. 

Corruption is a complex issue and is so common in countries like Colombia that most people think that the situation can’t be changed and that it is too dangerous to denounce corrupt actors.

How do you think working across sectors can help to effect systemic change?

Isis: Colonisation and the imposition of the Western concept of conservation brought with them the conditions for local communities to be exploited because they are embedded in complex systems that local communities are not equipped to navigate. For instance, when schemes to address deforestation such as carbon offset projects are negotiated with communities, contracts are commonly written in a language that they don’t understand and corrupt brokers often take financial advantage of them. These processes are fraught with an imbalance of knowledge and power, which opens communities up to exploitation. They lose agency and the power to contribute meaningfully, partly because they don’t have the right interface to negotiate with entities like corporations. 

Addressing the challenge of maintaining agency through interventions like education and legal representation, therefore, holds potential for anti-corruption work in conservation.

Natalia: I think the most important insight is that the conservation sector is not isolated, and any anti-corruption measures should understand the roles played by related sectors. 

Land grabbing, for example, is closely linked to drug trafficking and financing organised armed groups. Regulations aimed at mitigating these phenomena often have loopholes that are exploited by criminal actors or are hindered in their effectiveness by corruption. One of the recommendations of the TGNR project was to amend the SARLAFT (Asset Laundering and Terrorist Financing Risk Management System) to accurately reflect financial flows so that environmental crimes can be identified as a source of laundered money. 

Collaborating across regions, sectors and disciplines – including governance, human rights and anti-terrorism – could help to identify the drivers of corruption and reveal important learnings on how illegal economies are tackled in other parts of the world.

The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the Exploring Responses to Corruption in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Practice initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

Read more:

Corruption and criminality behind biodiversity loss in Colombia’s forests: Land grabbing
A May 2021 partner resource by Transparent Governance of Natural Resources

Corruption definitions and their implications for targeting natural resource corruption
An August 2021 TNRC Topic Brief by Aled Williams, Senior Adviser, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre

Spurring new cross-sectoral connections towards anti-corruption responses in conservation
A thought piece by Elizabeth Hart, Chief of Party, Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) and Aled Williams, Senior Advisor at U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center – Chr. Michelsen Institute, Research Coordinator for TNRC