Amid the political turbulence that kicked off in Europe in 2016, an important event from last year risks being forgotten. 2016 saw an unprecedented global commitment to tackle corruption. World leaders at the anti-corruption summit in London stated that “We commit to expose corruption wherever it is found, to pursue and punish those who perpetrate, facilitate or are complicit in it, to support the communities who have suffered from it, and to ensure it does not fester in our government institutions, businesses and communities”.
As with any pledge, the proof will be in the pudding. Less than a year on, the EU faces a key opportunity to tackle corruption in one of the places where it is most rampant, yet little-known and poorly understood – the logging industry operating in some of the world’s most fragile and climate-critical ecosystems, rainforests.
The EU is uniquely placed and, as one of the main consumer markets for tropical timber, has a key responsibility to promote and pursue fundamental reforms to tackle corruption in source countries. As the European Commission prepares its follow up to the review of the EU’s international forest policies, corruption should be top of their agenda, as it risks undermining progress on all other fronts.
The natural resource sector is famously corrupt – the world’s most corrupt industry in fact, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Across continents, developing countries’ natural wealth is siphoned off by corrupt politicians and the companies they do business with, robbing national treasuries of public funds that could help lift whole populations out of poverty.
With forests it isn’t only the host countries who lose out – it’s all of us. High levels of corruption in forest-rich countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo mean that rainforests are being cut down far beyond legal limits, destroying one of our best defences in the fight against climate change at a time when carbon emissions are higher than ever. This also has devastating effects on biodiversity and on the lives of communities living in and around the forests.
Corruption taints the logging industry at such scale that a fresh approach that goes beyond technical elements is needed. Across continents, logging companies bribe officials for access to forest that should by law be protected. Police at forest checkpoints are paid to look the other way when timber trucks come and go far more frequently than they should. At ports, documents are tampered with or forged to give the impression that timber is legal when it isn’t.
Much of this timber ends up in the EU, despite laws in place banning the import of illegal wood – the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). But as one of the only consumer blocks with such laws, the EU has the potential to play a key role in tackling the problem. Member States, with support from the European Commission, must improve compliance and step up their enforcement. Crucially, this should include measures that are specifically designed to guard timber supply chains against corruption.
While the EUTR is aimed at choking demand for illegal timber, the FLEGT (Forest, Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan represents the EU’s efforts to tackle the problem at source, including through bilateral agreements with timber-producing countries. This plan does include elements that can help tackle corruption, but should be re-oriented and strengthened to tackle the scale of the corruption challenge. Logging permits should be reviewed and cancelled where they are allocated through corrupt means, for instance. Independent forest monitors should be an essential part of all EU interventions on the forest sector. Law enforcement efforts should be strengthened, measures to tackle conflicts of interest put in place, and there should be common minimum standards for accessing information on logging concessions.
To ensure that they’re robust, the EU’s efforts to improve the governance of tropical forests should be firmly embedded in broader anti-corruption strategies promoted through the EU’s development and foreign policy. This should seek to guarantee basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression and freedom of information, and strengthen the rule of law in producer countries. This should take place in close cooperation with other donors, in partnership with national governments, and be driven forward at the highest political level.
Without strengthening anti-corruption checks and balances along timber supply chains Europe will miss a major opportunity to contribute to global efforts to halt climate change at this very critical time.
That’s why Transparency International EU and Global Witness have teamed up to call on the Commission to integrate anti-corruption principles in FLEGT in their latest report entitled “Tackling corruption to protect the world’s forests. How the EU can rise to the challenge”.