Agalychnis lemur, commonly known as the Lemur Leaf Frog, is a yellowish green amphibian with dark spots on its back and attractive eyes found in Central America. According to recent estimates by the Smithsonian Institution, the number of these creatures has decreased by 80% in recent years due to the loss of much of its habitat as a result of deforestation and human activity.
Unfortunately, the Lemur Leaf Frog is just one example of the rapid loss of biodiversity affecting the planet and particularly the Latin American region, with 83% of wildlife disappearing since the 1970s. This is caused, at least in part, by the disappearance of 20% of the Amazon in the last 40 years.
Neither the fact that the lemur leaf frog is just three to four and a half centimetres long, nor the fact that it is classified as critically endangered, protects it from falling into the hands of international criminal organisations that shamelessly hunt them down to make huge profits from their illegal trade.
Fighting corruption: an essential task
According to estimates made by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, environmental crime is worth between 110 and 281 billion dollars annually worldwide. A significant part of this money is used to pay bribes.
In this regard, case studies carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2017 established that approximately four to ten per cent of the purchase value of ivory goes to pay bribes. This figure can be extrapolated to all environmental crimes.
In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that corruption occurs at all levels, and can take place both at the time of extraction and at the final destination, going through intermediate processes, and involving low and high level public officials as well as private entities.
The penetration of corruption at different levels can be explained simply as follows: a small lemur leaf frog dealer “buys a beer” for the street inspector, or gives money to the customs officer to buy a better car; while an industrialist who deforests or dumps waste that pollutes the environment invites a political leader to dinner or pays him huge sums of money. All of this is corruption.
The fact is that easy earnings are a catalyst for corruption. Even more so in the case of low risk crime where there is little control and, in many cases, these are not properly classified in the regulatory systems of many countries. However, we must also consider the structural problems that encourage corruption in many countries, such as poverty, low salaries, the cultural factor, the non-existence or weakness of the nation-state, and the lack of any real political will to implement measures, to name but a few.
That said, it is important to pay attention to the cultural factor. Illegal wildlife trafficking continues to be very attractive to transnational criminal groups for two simple, yet connected reasons: there is a demand and that makes it profitable. In the same way that someone believes that having a lemur leaf frog at home gives them social status and makes them look cool, another person will believe that eating the swimbladder of the Mexican vaquita porpoise has (supposed) medicinal properties. This is how cultural aspects can legitimise paying bribes to obtain the precious substance.
Is today’s policy the right one?
COVID-19 has taught us that the illegal trade in wildlife, as well as the disappearance of biodiversity, leaves us vulnerable. According to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at the Munich Security Conference in 2021: “the loss of biodiversity is a main driver of today’s and potentially future pandemics”. Consequently, tackling corruption is essential to protect nature and prevent both the loss of biodiversity and the emergence of future pandemics.
Since the adoption of the Palermo (2000) and Mérida (2003) Conventions, the issue has been simmering on the public agenda. However, it was not until the adoption of the 2016 resolution on Prohibiting, Preventing, Detecting and Countering the Corruption that Facilitates Activities Conducted in Violation of the CITES Convention that the phenomenon has found its way onto high-level political agendas.
One example of the political importance of the fight against corruption in protecting the environment and stopping financial flows to organised crime is the 2017 G20 High Level Principles on Combating Corruption Related to Illegal Trade in Wildlife and Wildlife Products. These principles establish a strategic reference for countries interested in really fighting against these two phenomena.
In May 2019, the presidents of Colombia, Iván Duque Márquez, and Peru, Martín Vizcarra, signed a joint declaration calling for the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Since then, NGOs, diplomats and political leaders have joined the initiative. The creation of the IACC will be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly Session on Corruption that will take place from 26-28 April 2021.
There is no doubt that this strategic reference serves as the main basis for the work undertaken between countries. However, is there real political will? The answer to this question is generally, “it depends.” It depends on the country, the political climate, the available resources, the culture and the international pressure that can be exerted, among other factors.
At the strategic-technical level, the fight against corruption depends on factors that go beyond political will. On the one hand, it requires the existence of duly financed and specialised anti-corruption structures in the country. It is also essential to have formal and informal mechanisms for inter-institutional coordination and information exchange. On the other hand, another necessary aspect is the existence of adequate, modern legislation which can be applied.
At an operational and technical level, it is important to have teams specialised in asset investigation and the flow of criminal assets to analyse their provenance in the case of large seizures. Likewise, the development of risk analysis instruments and electronic mechanisms for monitoring legal trade can yield interesting operational results. We must not forget that environmental crime is one of the few that mixes legal with illegal trade. Criminal groups know it and take advantage of it.
Finally, prevention and cultural change are crucial to obtaining long-term sustainable results. Neither the lemur leaf frog, nor the vaquita porpoise would be critically endangered if there were no demand for them. Protecting their habitat and the planet’s biodiversity is everyone’s responsibility.
Marc Reina, Thematic Manager of the police cooperation component of EL PAcCTO