Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

Low-cost video, and easier video distribution, simple though it sounds, is emerging as one of the premier corruption-fighting tools. This is especially true for small countries with poor track records in public integrity. Consider Cambodia. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year rule has been rife with graft, cronyism, land grabbing, and political violence, the government has been able to keep the extent of this hidden from most of the Cambodian public. Yet video and video-sharing services have proved one form of protest that the reigning government cannot seem to quash.

The most recent video to provoke the ire of the ruling party has low production values and little action. Three men sit at a table, one talking for the majority of the eight-minute run time about a Global Witness report’s allegations of extreme nepotism and cronyism within the ruling family. The man speaking, Kem Ley, was an opposition politician who was assassinated in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store just two days after his remarks. Many commentators immediately suspected the killing was political; these statements themselves spurred lawsuits from the ruling party. Multiple YouTube versions of the video now have several hundred thousand views each, with video news stories covering the killing tallying hundreds of thousands more. Kem’s funeral procession brought out droves of Cambodians, some reports numbering the crowd at two million (in a country of around 15 million people).

Another recent video about an anticorruption campaigner has become extremely popular despite—or perhaps because of—the government’s best efforts to stop it. The video’s subject, Chut Wutty, worked to expose illegal logging in Cambodian forests, logging that often happened with police complicity or direct participation. While accompanying journalists to show them the extent of the illegal deforestation, Wutty was shot and killed by a police officer. The low-budget documentary about his life and death was released this spring. Banned by the government, the film also quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gathered plenty of attention.

In a country with state-controlled media, sparse internet connectivity, and extreme poverty, the exposure to corruption-exposing video is ad hoc but growing. Videos like these hold promise for the future of the long-struggling country for several reasons:

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Lacey Act Corruption-Based Risks Should Prompt Wood Importers to Branch Out

The Lacey Act, a century-old U.S. statute, provides a unified set of penalties for possession of illegally procured animals or plants from the U.S. and, after amendments five years ago, those procured in violation of foreign laws as well. The Act was envisioned as a conservation statute, not an anticorruption statute; big cats (Siberian tigers) rather than big cronies were named as the motivation behind a recent prosecution under the new amendments. Yet in finalizing that case—involving retailer Lumber Liquidators’ purchase and import of illegally sourced wood—the Department of Justice (DOJ) seemed to suggest that companies could be held to a higher standard of diligence where they source natural goods from countries with high levels of corruption. In announcing Lumber Liquidators’ agreement to plead guilty to various Lacey Act charges for importing timber procured in violation of foreign logging laws, the DOJ emphasized the company’s failure to address red flags that the imports were illegally acquired. Those flags included that the imported wood came from a region known “to carry a high risk of [timber] being illegally sourced due to corruption and illegal harvesting.” Furthermore, the case suggests heightened scrutiny when natural resource products travel through intermediary agents whose countries also suffer from corruption or lack of robust enforcement of laws against illegal logging and the like. (In the Lumber Liquidators case, Russia was the source of the stock in question, and China was the intermediary seller’s base.)

The fate of Lumber Liquidators should put companies sourcing wood from regions with entrenched corruption on alert. The DOJ’s statement, if it is carried forward, foreshadows positive results. The Lacey’s Act’s potential in the fight against corruption is significant, straightforward, and good for everyone. A Bloomberg analysis notes that enforcement of foreign laws benefits U.S. producers as well as combatting foreign corruption. The Sierra Club emphasizes the role that corruption plays in global illegal logging and the Lacey Act’s role in “leading the fight” against it. The Natural Resources Defense Council blog also advocated the role of the Act in helping “countries establish rule of law and crackdown on corruption.” Such commentary highlights a second takeaway from the DOJ order: to reach the corruption-combatting potential of the statute, wood sourcing companies need to allow the Lacey Act threat to improve compliance in their source nations, rather than leaving for greener pastures. Indeed, using the Lacey Act to incentivize companies to “engage their supply chain” to avoid forestry corruption is both achievable and worthwhile:

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Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

Illegal logging is one of the gravest threats to the environment, and to the people (and countries) that depend on forest resources. Global Witness’s 2013 Annual Review describes industrial logging as a force that “drives land grabs, promotes corruption, contributes to climate change, fuels conflict and human rights abuses, and threatens over one billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods and well-being.” The problem has been documented with surprising depth. Prominent examples include investigative work done by Global Witness (including two short films, Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, which shows undercover interviews with members of then-Chief Minister of Sarawak Taib Mahmud’s family and legal team advising a “foreign investor” how to use bribery and fraud to illegally clear land for a palm oil plantation, and Rubber Barons, which documents land grabbing by a Vietnamese rubber firm), as well as other groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently recounted how army officials protect Chinese loggers’ passage into Myanmar, despite new laws entirely banning foreign exports of logs. In the popular media, NPR’s All Things Considered and The New Yorker looked at illegal logging in Russia and allegations of its yield being sold by major U.S. retailers, while The Economist called out HSBC’s involvement with dirty loggers. The issue is not confined to developing economies—a World Bank paper enumerated the breadth and variety of possible illegal acts surrounding the logging industry and its products worldwide, noting that practically all involve corruption. The problem, then, appears well-known and reported but remains widespread, possibly getting worse.

Illegal logging remains persistent largely because of pervasive corruption. A number of proposals have already laid out systems to address forestry corruption. Possibilities include land tenure arrangements that give management to local or indigenous groups, certification schemes for wood products, and a variety of monitoring and transparency mechanisms. A 2009 World Bank report provided a “comprehensive framework” involving five principal parts, each with a number of sub-components. Scholars, NGOs, and international organizations have noted the need for technology to increase monitoring capabilities. Technological developments may offer the key to progress in the fight against illegal logging—allowing circumvention of (or greater pressure on) the corrupt government officials who ignore, or sometimes participate in or profit from, the unlawful destruction of forests.

A previous post discussed one such technology, isotope provenancing, used to identify the origin of wood. This technology, however, has its limits. (For example, it does not help when forests are razed not to harvest the timber, but to clear the land for other uses, such as palm oil and rubber plantations.) Other new technologies can help show how corruption in the logging industry happens, working forward from the site of the problem instead of tracing back from imported products. One of the most promising tools—satellite imaging—is in fact already available, and could be very effective if deployed more appropriately and aggressively.

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The Giving Trees: Fighting Corruption in the Timber Industry with Technology

The 3-hour drive from the port city of Douala, Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé, is unsettling–and not just because drivers hurtle down the road, careening around blind curves into oncoming traffic. What is more worrying is that the oncoming traffic is comprised largely of huge lorries on their way to the shipyards transporting some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. After passing 10-15 trucks on my first trip, I started to wonder where the trees were coming from and how they could possibly be arriving in such a steady stream. Perhaps this large-scale lumber harvesting is not by itself all that unusual. But the facts that Cameroon ranks 144/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and that nearly two-thirds of these round logs leave the country destined for China–the world’s largest importer of illegally-sourced timber–raise red flags.

Indeed, illegal logging in southern Cameroon and the rest of the Congo Basin is a serious problem, contributing to the destruction of 2.5% of the world’s second largest rainforest over a single decade. Studies show that in two of Cameroon’s nearest neighbors, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), illicit logging could account for as much as 70% of the timber market. In fact, the entire greenbelt envelops countries where corruption is rife – India, China, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria – and the links between corruption and over-logging have been widely studied by the likes of TI, U4, UNODC, and the World Bank.

Current efforts to address poor governance of the timber industry are admirable but insufficient. The EU FLEGT Action Plan and the US Lacey Act regulate trade in wood and ban the importation of illegally sourced goods. Under the FLEGT Plan, Cameroon and the EU agreed to a licensing scheme to promote proper forest management. But no such regulation exists in China, a market that has boomed over the past 15 years largely in response to American demand for manufactured wood products. Furthermore, as the US Environmental Investigation Agency has shown in the Peruvian market, transparent trade depends on formal paperwork – export permits, certificates of origin, etc. – that are easily forged and exchanged on the black market. As a result, the same study points out, American importers often remain culpable, despite regulations.

We need a coordinated global response that can be effective independent of manipulable documents. What might this answer look like? A major component might well be the deployment of new technologies and scientific techniques to verify the origin of timber and timber products. Continue reading