The forests, wildlife, plants, and vegetation of the Mekong River Basin are under sustained assault. Not from some virulent new fungus or mutant virus. No, the attacker is a man-made pathogen: the inability of the region’s governments to curb the rampant corruption eating away at the legal structure that protects the basin’s ecosystem. Officials of basin governments are being paid to condone logging in conservation zones, to issue export permits for protected flora and fauna, and to otherwise flaunt laws meant to prevent an environmental catastrophe. No other ecosystem is under such deadly assault, and unless the trend is arrested, the World Wildlife Fund predicts that within 20 years the region, twice the size of California and rivaled only by the Amazon for biological diversity, could lose more than a third of its remaining forests along with the exotic plants and wildlife that inhabit them.
The six governments of the region – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – have declared war on environmental corruption and have begun counterattacking. Environmental protection laws are being tweaked, and investigators and prosecutors trained to detect and prosecute environmental crime. But important though these steps are, in the face of impending ecological disaster bolder, more unconventional ones are needed. Here are four:
1) Scrap territorial restrictions on the prosecution of environmental crime. Because the criminal laws of basin governments generally do not reach conduct that occurred in another country, importers of timber or wildlife taken in violation of the source country’s law can to easily evade prosecution. Cutting timber on the territory of Laos without a permit is a crime and so is selling it on Laotian territory. But if the purchaser does not take title to the illegally cut logs until they enter Vietnam, he is beyond the reach of Laotian law. Nor does he run afoul of Vietnamese law. For, as one Vietnamese buyer was quick to tell Vietnamese authorities, the possession in Vietnam of timber illegally cut in Laos is not a crime under Vietnamese law.
It is not only Laotians who are injured when their country’s logs are illegally harvested. Everyone in the basin is affected when the environment is pillaged. The criminal laws of the region’s governments should reflect this; it should be against the law of every country in the region to damage or contribute to the damage of the region’s ecosystem – no matter the country where the conduct occurred. One way to achieve this result would be to borrow a leaf from a 2008 American law (amending the Lacey Act) that makes the importation of any plant or animal “taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any . . . foreign law” a crime. Another would be for each of the six countries of the region to outlaw the harvesting of logs or the trafficking in wildlife, or to facilitate their harvesting or trafficking, when done in violation of the law of any other country in the region.
2) Increase the number of environmental law enforcers. Laws without enforcement, Abraham Lincoln reportedly observed, is just good advice. To ensure the region’s environmental protection laws amount to more than good advice, the number of individuals responsible for investigating and prosecuting them should be increased. The increase should mean not only hiring more police and prosecutors. It should also include empowering citizens and nongovernmental organizations to bring environmental criminals before national courts, either by permitting private prosecution or by allowing civil suits for damages. The Environmental Investigation Agency and Global Witness have issued reports (here, here, and here) documenting significant violations of the region’s environmental laws and showing how the violations have injured residents of the affected areas. Why shouldn’t these individuals be able to use these reports to sue the violators for damages? Why shouldn’t the governments of the regions take advantage of the expertise and resources the international environmental movement has to offer to strengthen the enforcement of their environmental protection laws?
3) Conduct wealth checks of regional and local officials. The corruption that makes illegal logging and wildlife trafficking possible always has a local element. In several countries provincial and municipal officials are responsible for enforcing environmental laws, and even where they are not, they are often the only ones who know if the laws are being violated. Driving through the basin one comes across many luxurious homes with high-end SUVs parked out front that belong to regional governors and local forestry officials, a sign many are paid to ignore environmental crimes. The governments of all six countries already require public servants to report details of their personal finances to a government agency. These reports should be used, as they are in the Philippines, to see if officials are living beyond their means. If they are, and cannot explain the sources of their wealth, they should, as in Hong Kong, be prosecuted for accumulating illicit wealth.
4) Create a joint intelligence/operations center. While the region’s environmental criminals can move easily across national borders, national law enforcement personnel cannot. Differing laws and cumbersome procedures make it hard for agencies in the six countries to cooperate with counterparts in neighboring countries; it can be difficult if not impossible for police in different countries to share intelligence about criminal networks or obtain information for an investigation. They are at a distinct disadvantage when up against criminals whose operations seamlessly span national boundaries.
European countries once faced a similar problem; they overcame by creating Eurojust, a multi-national operations center to pool information and coordinate cross-border law enforcement. Located in The Hague, member countries send one or more experienced judges, prosecutors or investigators to sit side-by-side with colleagues from other nations. If a Spanish prosecutor needs to know if a suspect in one of her cases owns a Danish corporation, she calls her Eurojust representative, who turns to her Eurojust Danish colleague for help. If investigators in several countries are pursuing the same organized criminal gang, their Eurojust representatives will arrange a meeting where they can share notes. The countries of the Mekong region should build on the Eurojust model to create an institution to foster transnational cooperation and unite them in the pursuit of those devastating the region’s flora and fauna.
It is not too late to reverse the damage done to the Mekong basin ecosystem, but reversal will take radical, unconventional steps of the kind proposed here. Are the governments of the region willing to take them? For the benefit of today’s generation of Mekongers and for those to come, let us hope they are.