For the love of money – corruption remains a key enabler of environmental crime

The annual UN International Anti-Corruption Day (9 December) provides an opportunity to reflect on whether the global community is making progress in curbing this persistent and pernicious crime – and in terms of the prevalence of corruption as a key enabler of environmental crime, the overall prognosis is not good.

The United Nations estimates that every year bribes totalling $1 trillion are paid, with $2.6 trillion stolen through corruption. The total is equivalent to five per cent of global GDP, with corruption identified as one of the biggest barriers to achieving the vital Sustainable Development Goals.

This is especially the case in terms of SDG 15, which seeks to protect terrestrial ecosystems including forests and to halt biodiversity loss. Research shows a clear link between corruption levels and a country’s environmental performance. With the value of environmental crime estimated at up to $258 billion a year, plenty of money is available to criminal syndicates engaged in illegal logging or wildlife trafficking to pay-off government officials and politicians to turn a blind eye.

One reason is that environmental crime is still not seen as a serious priority in many countries and remains a low-risk and high-profit undertaking; a customs officer who would not take a bribe to let a consignment of narcotics through due to the potential consequences may feel that ignoring a shipment of illegal logs is worth the lower risk.

Of all the environmental crime cases I have documented, almost every one involved a degree of corruption, from petty bribery to grant larceny. Over the years, undercover meetings with wildlife and timber traffickers show how pay-offs to corrupt officials are a vital part of their modus operandi to ensure the contraband is not seized en route or, in the unlikely event it is, to avoid arrest and prosecution.

Julian Newman filming an event in Manggroholo village, West Papua, Indonesia.

Campaigns Director Julian Newman filming in West Papua, 2003 (c) EIAimage

One of the more egregious cases I have come across involved a corrupt police officer supposedly involved in combating illegal logging in Papua, Indonesia. In the middle of the past decade, rampant illegal logging of Indonesia’s precious forests was at its zenith. Police Commissioner Marthen Renouw was tasked with tackling the problem in a major hotspot in West Papua. Instead, a series of suspicious transactions in his bank account revealed he was in fact being paid by the boss of one of the timber companies he was supposed to be investigating.

Renouw was duly charged under anti-money laundering and anti-corruption laws. His defence was based on the farcical claim that the money from the timber company was intended to fund his operations against illegal logging. He was acquitted when one the key witnesses failed to appear in court. As the witness was the boss who paid Renouw and was also wanted, it is hardly surprising he did not show. I subsequently located a luxurious villa linked to Renouw on the island of Bali, testament to the kickbacks he received and was never prosecuted for.

In East Africa a few years ago, I stumbled across an example of how political patronage and payments are also utilised in the illegal logging business. I was in the coastal town of Pemba, northern Mozambique, which at the time was a major hub for illegal export of huge amounts of logs to China. One of the Chinese-run logging businesses in the area was called Senlian, which had been implicated in previous incidents of timber and ivory smuggling.

Senlian Mandlate

Caught on hidden camera – Mozambique politician Tomas Mandlate, left, boasts of the ‘help’ he can give for trafficking stolen timber (c) EIAimage

During an undercover meeting with the Chinese boss at his factory, we were told he had temporarily halted his illegal exports of raw logs after a shipment was detained, but he was working to resolve the problem. I soon found out how this would be done. After the factory tour, the boss invited me back to his house for tea. On arrival I was introduced to a middle-aged Mozambican man, who was also staying at the house during a visit to attend the congress of the ruling party. He introduced himself as Tomas Mandlate, then a member of parliament and former Minister of Agriculture. He explained how he was good friends with the boss of Senlian and actually had a stake in the company, in return for “helping the company solve some problems” – ‘problems’ such as being caught trying to smuggle logs.

With high-level corruption linked to environmental crime usually going unpunished, it is unsurprising routine lower level pay-offs are commonplace. In 2009, one of the biggest single cases of ivory smuggling out of Tanzania occurred. Three containers which had been shipped from the country’s biggest port of Dar es Salaam and declared as plastic waste were inspected at ports in South-East Asia and found to contain a total of almost 11 tonnes of elephant tusks.

Detailed research into the case by EIA revealed that the containers had been filled and loaded at an industrial yard operated by a freight company. The loading was supervised by customs officers from the Tanzania Revenue Authority and the containers sealed for delivery to the port and onward shipment to the Far East. It is inconceivable that the customs officers were not complicit. Six officers were duly charged, yet never prosecuted and almost 10 years after one of the biggest ivory seizures ever, seen not a single person has been convicted.

Nam Theun 2 dam construction site, Laos, 14th -20th January 2008. VW

Former forest land cleared for a dam in Laos, 2008 (c) EIAimage

Yet despite the continued prevalence of corruption in various forms of environmental crime, there are proven ways to suppress it. One of the most important is political will; a strong tone from the top can alter the culture in which corruption thrives. For example, since 2008 we have repeatedly exposed rampant illegal logging and timber smuggling from Laos into neighbouring Vietnam. One of the main hotspots was Attapeu Province, in southern Laos. Here, Vietnamese-owned businesses ostensibly involved in rubber plantations and hydropower dams were exporting hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of logs across the border, despite Laos having a log export ban, with the connivance of Government officials.

In 2015, the new Prime Minister of Laos issued an order to all Government departments to take steps to stop illegal logging and smuggling, driven by concerns over burgeoning corruption and revenue loss to the state. He personally went to Attapeu to launch the campaign. In November 2017, the governor of Attapeu was removed from office due to involvement in illegal logging and embezzlement.

China’s anti-corruption campaign has also had unintended benefits by suppressing the practice of giving Government officials ‘gifts’ of illegal wildlife products and precious woods. A couple of years ago, I was visiting the city of Ruili near the border with Myanmar. The town serves as a trade hub for timber smuggled across the border and yet on the hour-long drive from the airport the expressway was eerily quiet. The taxi driver explained that he used to be far busier, ferrying businesspeople to the border to buy products made from precious rosewood and jade. Yet with the anti-corruption clampdown, the business had collapsed.

When considering the problem of corruption in the context of environmental crime, it is difficult to avoid fixating on the plethora of cases I’ve come across and to overlook the inspiring examples of individual officers who refuse to yield to the easy temptation of a bribe and, instead, carry out their public duty diligently and honestly.

For example, in 2013 a team of police officers raided a large house in an upmarket suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania following painstaking surveillance. Inside, they found three Chinese nationals packing almost two tonnes of ivory tusks into sacks ready for export. The suspects offered the arresting officer a cash bribe of $50,000. The officers declined and the offence of attempted bribery was added to the charge sheet. Two of the three suspects received lengthy jail sentences.

So, to mark Anti-Corruption Day, we salute all those law enforcement officers and government officials who serve their countries and the wider global environment by refusing to yield to corruption.