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) and Aled Williams, Senior Advisor at U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center – Chr. Michelsen Institute, Research Coordinator for TNRC. Both are part of the Exploring Responses to Corruption in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Practice initiative, incubated by the Luc Hoffmann Institute and TNRC.

Corruption undermines every type of conservation effort. Knowledge sharing and new alliances between the conservation and anti-corruption communities have the potential to drive more effective responses.

Corruption plays a significant role in degrading nature, disrupting governance, undermining conservation efforts, and discouraging thriving, sustainable communities around the world. Corruption is complex and resilient, with its local dimension often connected to global dynamics through both direct and indirect pathways. It lacks a universally accepted definition while at the same time calling for coordinated responses from different actors. 

The challenge

Sharing cross-sectoral learning on corruption and its impact on natural resources and conservation is a key part of exploring new anti-corruption responses in the conservation sector.

Corruption is often the root cause of environmental degradation for the exclusive benefit of restricted power circles, as in the case of bribes to falsify export permits for protected species, complicit enabling of illegal and unreported fishing and illegal logging, or wholesale land grabbing from indigenous communities. In addition, the climate crisis has highlighted the urgency of rethinking how we do things across every sector. This includes addressing the misuse of power to serve interests that threaten a functional, just and sustainable society and environment.

Exploring anti-corruption responses

Conservation practitioners and analysts know these challenges, and the anti-corruption community has learned much over decades of work. However, until recently, only a few initiatives have directly addressed the impact of corruption on conservation outcomes. Fortunately, this is changing. Organisations on both sides recognise the confluence of their concerns, and the agenda in this area is growing as stakeholders examine the overlap and potential collaboration between these fields. 

The Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project, led by the WWF US in consortium with U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre – Chr. Michelsen Institute, TRAFFIC and the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University, has been one of the leaders in this effort. We are working with the Luc Hoffmann Institute to expand this dialogue and incubate new anti-corruption responses through the ‘Exploring responses to corruption in natural resource management and conservation practice’ project.

Through this cooperation, we hope to build common understandings of the scope of the problem, identify the range of risks that corruption poses to conservation objectives, and support conservation stakeholders in addressing the multi-faceted and dynamic character of corruption.

Arenas for fostering change

Focussing on lived experiences and insights is essential for a clear understanding of the problem. In order to respond in as informed a way as possible, six arenas have been identified where anti-corruption interventions would significantly benefit nature conservation. 

  • Law enforcement and the judicial sector
  • International finance and illicit financial flows
  • Supply chains
  • National policies and politics
  • Local and community-based conservation
  • Conservation organisations and funders

Thus far in the field of conservation, corruption has been primarily viewed through a law enforcement lens. This isn’t surprising given that many harms to conservation outcomes come from illegal activities like poaching, illegal fishing and logging, and the corruption that facilitates them. 

However, enforcement does not happen in a vacuum but is embedded in its political and social context. It is influenced by national policies and politics, and illegality is encouraged by avenues for laundering proceeds and the high returns generated by global supply-chain demand for illegally-harvested products. And, because supporting law enforcement actors may be compromising and risky in environments of corruption and low accountability, the enforcement arena needs to be further explored and supported by an understanding of how socio-political factors shape the effective implementation of the law. 

At the same time, corrupt actions can undermine even conservation activities that seem far from the networks of criminality that drive illegal trade, like community-based management. In such settings (as well as others), community empowerment, human rights-based approaches, and interventions aimed at addressing informal social norms may be better tools than law enforcement to address the impact of corruption. 

Understanding the enabling environment for corruption and its broader context are therefore essential to assessing the potential of a programme for success or failure, and to avoid unintended consequences. Given these considerations, conservation organisations and their funders need to assess and strengthen the range of approaches they have available to identify the risks that corruption poses and respond accordingly.

Co-creating shared agendas

By integrating the corruption lens in the way that we work, our goal is to reduce the risk that corruption poses to conservation and natural resource management (NRM) objectives. Through our work with the ‘Exploring Responses to Corruption in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Practice’ initiative, we aim to offer an opportunity for anti-corruption and conservation thought and action leaders to learn from each other and develop an actionable strategy for responding to the threats that corruption poses – it is a real possibility for growing partnerships in pursuit of a more just and sustainable global society.

Read more

Building State Capacity? Anti-Corruption and Illegal Logging in the Peruvian Amazon
An April 2021 TNRC Podcast with Aled Williams (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre – CMI) joined by Julia Urrunaga, Peru Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), and Camila Gianella, Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Mind the gap: Bridging the anti-money laundering (AML) and conservation communities to better address conservation crime and corruption
An April 2021 blog post by Judy Deane, Deputy Director, The Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center, GMU.

Natural resources, human rights, and corruption: What are the connections?
A June 2021 TNRC Topic Brief by Kate Sheill, Independent Consultant, and Rob Parry-Jones, World Wildlife Fund.

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.

Visit the project page: Exploring responses to corruption in natural resource management and conservation practice