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Safeguarding forest protection funds from corruption

A new Transparency International report recommends ways for the Central African Forest Initiative to improve transparency and protect its projects from corruption.

Magdalena Michalka © Transparency International

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Transparency Int'l

When people report large-scale theft from forest protection funds, they shouldn’t end up in prison. But that’s what happened to a director of the ministry that manages forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2009, he wrote to the Congolese president and prime minister alleging that the ministry’s secretary general had diverted around US$38 million of funding from the country's REDD+ forest protection programme. But the secretary general had powerful friends, and the director was soon arrested.

In desperation, his family turned to Licoco (Transparency International in DRC), who asked the prosecutor’s office and the finance inspectorate to launch an audit. When their report confirmed the director’s claims, he was released and the secretary general and several accomplices dismissed. Political resistance to the investigation means that 11 years on, the legal case is ongoing, but it has led to governance changes and funds are now channelled through structures with stronger safeguards.

Earth’s “second lung” under threat

Following strong media and public interest in the story, Licoco is working with the new secretary general to increase transparency throughout the REDD+ process. REDD+ funding in DRC is channelled through the National REDD+ Fund (FONAREDD), capitalised by the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). CAFI was launched during the UN General Assembly in 2015 to support country-level REDD+ and Low Emission Development investments in six Central African countries.

Working with local partners, CAFI aims to help governments in the Central African Republic, DRC, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon implement reforms and enhance investments to conserve Congo Basin forests and use them sustainably.

The region has the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest – around 240 million hectares, with the highest biodiversity in Africa. As a major carbon sink, the Congo Basin is also known as Earth’s “second lung”, its health is vital not just to the species and communities that thrive there, but to our entire planet. CAFI seeks to protect these forests to mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, reduce poverty among forest-dependent populations, and help drive sustainable development.

Corruption in conservation

Rising global temperatures and the coronavirus pandemic show that initiatives like CAFI are needed more than ever. Loss of habitat, illicit logging and the illegal wildlife trade, fuelled by corruption, are making zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 increasingly common. This means it is critical that we channel resources into protecting the environment – but widespread corruption in the management of climate mitigation funds threatens to undermine conservation.

Across Central Africa, public sector corruption is alarmingly high. In Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, the region’s best performer was Gabon, with a score of 31 out of 100, ranked 123 out of 180 countries. Its lowest, Equatorial Guinea, scored only 16 and was ranked 173. If corruption and its causes are left unchecked, support to CAFI’s local partners is threatened, ultimately causing irreversible harm to the region’s precious forests.

Ways to strengthen protection

In response, Transparency International has issued a report assessing CAFI governance and offering recommendations for concrete actions to strengthen its integrity framework. The assessment found that CAFI lacks a transparency and anti-corruption policy, relying instead on participating organisations to use their own systems. To promote integrity across CAFI’s activities from board level to forest floor, it recommends actions in three key areas:

Promoting transparency and accountability

Higher levels of transparency mean people know what should be happening and can hold CAFI accountable for what does take place. Transparency International’s report recommends that CAFI adopts its own transparency and accountability measures, including a strong information disclosure policy, posting information on its website in both English and French, opening meetings to civil society observers, and publishing memoranda of understanding with development partners – including details of monetary transfers.

Stopping and deterring corruption

To uncover and prevent corruption, and ensure that no one reporting wrongdoing suffers reprisals, the report urges CAFI to offer clear, accessible complaints procedures and to establish its own whistleblower protection mechanism. It should also define sanctions against corruption and how they would be enforced. These steps are crucial in cases like the Congolese ministry director’s who was arrested for reporting theft.

Preventing conflicts of interest

A major flaw in CAFI’s decision-making chain allows implementing agencies to sit on decision-making bodies, causing significant conflicts of interest. To counter this, the report recommends that CAFI publishes conflict-of-interest declarations from members and requires decision-makers to suspend their implementation roles.

Steps towards stronger governance

CAFI’s Executive Board recognises the report as a “most timely important tool”. Alongside other independent evaluations during 2020, it will inform revision of CAFI procedures, making them more transparent and efficient. Its recommendations have already produced change. Prior to CAFI’s next executive board meeting in November, board members will be asked to submit a conflict-of-interest declaration, instead of signalling conflicts of interest voluntarily.

Other recommendations are awaiting formal approval by the Executive Board at its November meeting. These include clarifying CAFI’s information disclosure policy, making project information more accessible, publishing summaries of board meetings, centralising information about complaints mechanisms and addressing wider conflicts of interest.

Transparency International welcomes these first steps towards stronger governance and will continue encouraging CAFI to implement further measures.

Local people as forest guardians

A robust CAFI governance framework will help communities and civil society across the Congo Basin speak up against environmental corruption. In Cameroon – which is 40 per cent rainforest – Transparency International is already helping train local people to monitor the situation on the ground and report illegal logging to timber companies and the Forestry Ministry. As a result, officials have seized illegally cut logs and initiated legal proceedings.

Stronger governance measures will enable local organisations and forest communities to speak up against wrongdoing – helping CAFI maximise its impact. With the coronavirus pandemic highlighting complex links between environmental health, emerging diseases and illicit activities, the need for a greener future couldn’t be more urgent. A transparent, strongly governed CAFI has a vital role to play.