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Corruption and illegal deforestation go hand in hand

Brice Böhmer

What do Brazil, Congo, Honduras and Vietnam have in common? They are all resource-rich, heavily forested countries with score lows on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption.

They are all located in important rainforest regions, which are home to a major share of the world’s biodiversity. Preserving it is not only important for the climate but also for billions of women and men who rely on forest resources to survive.

Since 1995, Transparency International has ranked most countries according to the CPI. The most recent report is unambiguous: the vast majority of countries assessed have made little to no progress in ending corruption. Most forest-rich African countries fall into this category.

The impact of corruption cannot be overstated.

Approximately 41 per cent of Africans live in poverty while stolen assets, estimated at US$50 billion, are syphoned out of the continent every year — money that could be invested in jobs and social services. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in every two citizens reported paying a bribe for land services such as registering land for their family homes. In forested countries, local communities and indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable to corruption; collusion between powerful corporate interests and illegal logging are destroying their livelihoods and degrading their environment.

Central Africa is home to the second largest rainforest in the world, harbouring considerable natural resources including minerals, oil and wood. At the same time, many of the region’s countries perform very poorly in the CPI. Some are grappling with prolonged crisis, such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); others like Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo are facing recurring social unrest and contested elections.

It would be easy to claim that these resource rich countries are suffering from a resource curse, but the reality is far more complex.

Lack of genuine democratic space

Strong, democratic institutions are key to curbing corruption, but marginalised groups continue to lack a voice. Land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities remain violated or unrecognised. Even when these rights are recognised, they are often not realised in practice. The lack of access to justice and information means that local communities cannot claim their rights, or the benefits from logging on their land.

Some though have the courage to speak out, including in DRC where a former director of the ministry that manages forests exposed the large-scale theft of funds from the country’s REDD+ forest protection programme.

Insufficient and slow governance reforms

Countries that have signed up to a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union have made progress in strengthening their laws and policies in recent years. VPAs are a powerful tool to fix governance problems in the forest sector, support community engagement in forest-related decisions, and boost the trade in legally sourced timber. However, most of these countries suffer from major inconsistencies within forest legislation or have legal loopholes that enable deforestation and land grabbing to thrive. There is also a lack of political will to implement these laws.

Powerful corporate and political interests

Most heavily forested countries have committed to managing their resources transparently to protect the environment and combat climate change. However, collusion with powerful companies based in Europe or Asia is blocking progress in the less developed of these nations.

In many of them, the most valuable commodity local politicians have to offer is forest land, predominantly for logging and the development of commercial agriculture. Independent NGO reports show that the majority of these companies violate national legislation with total impunity. Fighting corruption would go a long way in ensuring these commitments are effectively translated in practice.

A shared responsibility

It’s not just less developed countries that need to step up governance efforts to save forests. As major importers of illegally sourced timber products, rich countries such as EU Member States have a responsibility to join efforts to curb corruption in partnership with timber producing countries. Enforcing EU timber regulations should be a particular priority.

The involvement of transnational organised crime and advanced money laundering through complex schemes of multi-layered shell companies based in offshore jurisdictions should also be targeted.

Ultimately, the way forward is clear: without democratic institutions, processes, and transparent and inclusive management of resources, corruption cannot be curbed.

Initiatives like the Central African Forest Initiative should be part of the solution and contribute to the fight against corruption. It is time for democracy to work for everyone, including the world’s forests.

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