Breaking chains of corruption in wildlife & forest crime

Today is UN International Anti-Corruption Day and with this year’s theme being ‘Break the Corruption Chain’ it’s a good time to bring attention once more to the critical role corruption plays in the transnational illegal wildlife and forestry trades.

As highlighted by the UN and by the UN Convention Against Corruption, corruption is a complex issue with a wide range of corrosive effects on societies, fundamentally undermining not only a nation’s ability to socio-economically develop sustainably but also the new Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in September..

Wildlife and forest crimes are transnational crimes where corruption is known to play a pivotal role in their facilitation and growth, especially in the illegal trade in specific species, including timber. This should come as no surprise considering how much money is involved. Although the true estimated extent and annual global values remain imprecise, the trade in illegal wildlife alone is estimated to range from $7 billion to $23 billion while the annual estimated values of the illegal timber and fish trades range between $30-$100 billion and $10-$30 billion respectively.

Even the most conservative estimates make illegal trade in fauna and flora globally worth upwards of $47 billion a year. Such large rewards are highly attractive to a large numbers of stakeholders eager for a slice of this escalating serious transnational organised crime. As such, it should come as no surprise that the illegal trade in flora and flora is commonly listed in the top five grossing transnational organised crimes annually.

2001_Tanzania_Elephant_Carcass_01 - lo res

EIA investigator documenting a poached elephant carcass in Tanzania; EIA’s 2014 report Vanishing Point found corruption throughout the county’s illegal ivory trade (c) EIA

Raising the profile of the role of corruption in wildlife and forest crime, EIA recently attended the 6th Conference of State Parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption in St Petersburg. Here we were on the panel of the event ‘Addressing the nexus between illegal wildlife and forestry trades and corruption’ UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov and CITES secretary general John Scanlon to discuss this complex and devastating issue.

Despite the clear role corruption plays in wildlife and forest crimes, this was the first time the issue had ever been raised at UNCAC.

Such awareness-raising efforts are welcomed but, although integral to the fight against illegal wildlife trade and corruption, they are not enough to stop this insidious global scourge. Initiatives must also address wildlife and forest crimes with corruption as an intrinsic element. To successfully tackle those at the top who benefit most from these illegal enterprises, rather than the commonly destitute and dispensable at the bottom, requires the full use of a range of legal instruments, such as those designed to tackle corruption and money-laundering.

These laws must be used against criminal syndicates profiting from the pillaging of our natural world where sentences handed out for wildlife and forest crimes are not representative of the damage caused nor the values involved and so provide little deterrent. Wildlife and forest crimes must be treated as predicate offences for corruption and money laundering, both of which carry far more punitive punishments than are currently deployed against wildlife and forests crimes.

Labora Sitorus (c) metrotvnews

Labora Sitorus (c) metrotvnews

Where individuals are prosecuted for either corruption or money laundering as well as or instead of illegal wildlife or forestry offences, the sentences speak for themselves. A recent case involved Labora Sitorus, a police officer from Papua, Indonesia, who was arrested and charged with illegal logging, fuel-smuggling and money-laundering. In early 2014, he was found guilty of illegal logging and sentenced to just two years in prison with a fine of $4,000. He was, however, acquitted of money-laundering despite evidence which showed $127m had passed through his bank accounts. Following an appeal by prosecutors, he was eventually convicted of money-laundering and jailed for eight years by the High Court of Jayapura, after which a decision by the Supreme Court led to a sentence of 15 years and he was ordered to pay Rp5bn in fines, equivalent to $369,934 – a sentence and fine dwarfing the original illegal logging charge in its scale of fine and length of imprisonment.

Promisingly, this is not a one-off example and a growing number of inter-agency investigations are bringing criminals involved in the illegal wildlife and timber trades to court charged not only under national wildlife and environmental acts but also on corruption and money-laundering charges carrying far heavier fines and longer penal sentences. This needs to become the norm and not the exception.

So, on this anti-corruption day remind yourself that the scourge of corruption usually in the headlines for besmirching sports and businesses is also responsible for the unsustainable exploitation and potentially irreversible damage to environments, ecosystems and species around the world.

Many of these species and ecosystems are at a tipping point and may be lost forever, to the shame of our generation and at the expense of those to come. In this day and age there are no more excuses – it’s time to break the corruption chain.