April 23, 2009
Today is Earth Day and it doesn’t take much imagination to follow the trail from a lot of environmental destruction back to bribery.
Indonesia is facing terrible deforestation. Western multinationals, sensitive to the campaigns of environmental nonprofits, shy away from the reputational damage that operating in poorly regulated markets like Indonesia can bring. Neighboring Malaysia, by comparison, has worked to develop a better-managed and regulated logging industry that enables the Malaysians to sell timber to companies seeking to avoid the political and environmental issues surrounding Indonesia timber. Taking advantage of this, Indonesian loggers need only bribe their way across the border to Borneo, where their wood can be legitimized with the “Malaysian” label and easily sold on the international market. A single bribe-taker at the border exacerbates the deforestation, reduces the revenue to Indonesia for its lumber – sold illicitly at reduced rates – and undermines Malaysian efforts to establish a credible timber industry through government regulation.
Cambodia has, at times, launched widespread reforestation efforts. In that country, struggling to recover from the environmental devastation wrought by Pol Pot’s regime, Virachey National Park sits at the center of an ecotourism effort. But, in the “is nothing sacred?” category, the former governor of the province, the former police chief and the park director have all been sentenced for their part in a US$15 million bribery scheme. They accepted bribes in exchange for permitting widespread illegal logging in the fragile national park they were meant to protect.
International trade in illegal wildlife products is estimated to be as high as US$10 billion annually. In the 1970’s, emergency measures were taken to protect India’s declining tiger population. Sariska National Park in Rajasthan was one of twenty-eight tiger reserves created in India. The Indian tiger population began to recover until the 1980s when demand grew for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. By 2005, the Indian government conceded that every last tiger had disappeared from Sariska National Park. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation referred only to park employees having “developed vested interests”. The rangers – employed by the state and paid with tax dollars – are widely rumored to have colluded with the poachers in exchange for modest bribes. They sold-out the country’s natural heritage that they were hired and trained to defend.
Entrenched habits of bribery double the difficulty of many of the environmental challenges we face.