Photo: NaraSimhan/
4 Dec 2018

Environmental crime and corruption: Threatening biodiversity, threatening societies

A flight attendant carefully folds bubble wrap around a jar of poached caviar and puts it in his bag. He is getting ready to go to work.

Arriving in a European city from Southeast Asia, the flight attendant hands the caviar to a dealer.  Both are part of an organized criminal network, a network that trades in species on the edge of extinction, a network whose illegal trade threatens entire ecosystems. Individual airline employees are complicit. Individual police officers are complicit. Even individuals in the anti-poaching units otherwise working so hard against the illegal wildlife trade can be involved.

- Certain airports are well known to experienced practitioners as pivotal nodes for smuggling wildlife products. Corrupt employees and civil servants can be found in any sector. Environmental crime has a devastating effect not only on animals, forests and fisheries, but ultimately also on us, says Aled Williams, senior adviser at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre at CMI.

He is the Research Coordinator for a team recently awarded funding from USAID to develop new knowledge, innovative methods and tools to counter corruption and environmental crime. The team consists of WWF-US, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University.

Weak historic anti-corruption impacts
International measures to prevent corruption in natural resource sectors are plentiful, but still not good enough. Often, neither measures intended to address natural resource corruption nor environmental crimes have the desired effects.

Developing new methods for tackling corruption and environmental crime is urgent. Some key species´ rates of decline are again worsening, risking a repeat of the alarming levels of decline seen in the 1980s. A recent WWF report found that humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since the 1970s. Smugglers, dealers, and complicit officials apparently have the upper hand, and corruption is a crucial part of the problem.

Uniting forces, strengthening anti-corruption measures in the environmental space
The new project is linked to the U4 Centre’s work on corruption in the natural resource and energy sectors, and its findings will be an invaluable contribution to the anti-corruption work not only of USAID but also of the U4 Partners. It will provide insights on the benefits of cooperating across sectors: Often separated by disciplinary or thematic boundaries, academics, anti-corruption practitioners and conservation advocates will join forces via this project.

-For too long, we have viewed human society as somehow separate from the ecosystems that sustain us. But we are embedded in these same ecosystems. If ecological and species decline continue at current rates, the impacts could cause runaway effects that we cannot control. So how do we stay ahead of the game? Our goal is to know more about how corruption and environmental crimes interrelate within specific contexts in order to help USAID and its partners develop targeted measures for stemming the negative impacts of corruption on biodiversity, says Williams.