How corruption is destroying the environment

Tackling and exposing corruption is fundamental for sustainable development

It is a paradox that living in a globalized world, at a time when we are permanently connected, information is available immediately, and people travel more frequently and further distances, we live our lives in an individualistic manner. It is as if our everyday choices of what we consume and our ethics when doing business didn’t have any consequences on the planet and its people.

We have lost our sense of belonging. As the humanitarian leader and world peace ambassador Sri Sri Ravi Shankar mentioned in Mexico City during the World Forum for Ethics in Business: “Corruption begins where your sense of belonging ends.” Therefore the main hurdle for sustainable development seems to be corruption.

We only take responsibility for relatively small things, limiting our sense of belonging to a reduced circle which we consider ours. Under this notion, corruption is a vicious cycle when someone searches a personal gain through unethical means or abuse of power.

However, one act of corruption touches many people’s lives. One example is the HSBC case on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia reported by Greenpeace International. Loans and financial services from the bank benefitted 6 palm oil companies whose operations destroyed vast areas of rainforest including orangutan habitat, seized land from local people, operated without legal permits, abused workers and used child labour, caused forest fires, draining and developed carbon-rich peatland. The effects that all of these have on the local communities go such a long way that it is hard to quantify, and according to the report, it breaches HSBC’s own policies on sustainability.

Another example of the high costs of corruption for society are the practices of Canadian mining abroad. In terms of climate change related activities, as several Goldcorp operated mines have proved; corruption can cost people their health, chances for prosperity or even their lives. This Canadian company (not the only one ) with its open pit mines “Alumbrera” in Argentina, “San Martin” in Honduras and “Marlin” in Guatemala, has faced allegations concerning environmental and human rights violations, ranging from: land occupation, water scarcity and contamination, attacks on activists and endangered health of the communities. “Some residents living near the mine have relatively high levels of lead in their blood and arsenic in their urine.”

One of the things that became clear in 2016 was that public policies at local level need a new orientation, having climate change action as the main focus. 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of a new sustainable development agenda set to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.

The question left yet to answer is how? Sustainable development means fighting inequalities and the distribution of wealth, therefore international cooperation plays a big role. Nevertheless there is a risk when designing programs to finance sustainable development in developing countries, where there is often poor governance and weak institutional accountability. This might mean funds could be diverted as a result of the many existing forms of corruption. Hence the importance of making the consequences of corruption widely visible; environmental lawyers, journalists and activists are much needed in this aspect.

More than 6 million people live in countries with a serious corruption problem” According to the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International in the public sector, the countries that scored the lowest out of 168 were: Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Angola, Iraq and Venezuela. A case-by-case study for each country’s situation would be needed, as this only reflects the perception towards the public sector. Nevertheless, at first glance all of these places with a high-perceived corruption index seem to have something in common: a very strong discourse of the other. The lack of belonging and consideration for others is rooted from the very conception of their governments: the creation of an autocracy versus a democracy

Nearly all the 30 most corrupt countries are dictatorships, it is a vital governing tool for authoritarian regimes“. This division creates social conflict, leaving vast social disparities based on wealth and power accumulation of a small group of people and promoting conditions that facilitate corruption. Thus producing bigger gaps of degrees of separation among people, educing their circle of sense of belonging: my people, my interests, my territory.

The part of the story, lays in the private sector in those apparently clean and democratic countries, as in many cases they have questionable business overseas. The Canadian mining industry mentioned before suits as a perfect example, where Canada ranks 9th in the index. This sector alone contributed $56 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2015, with their activity prospering at the expense of south-American communities, bribing local governments and leaving extensive collateral damage.

Whilst it is important to strengthen international cooperation mechanisms, create national anti-corruption agencies, public-private and civil partnerships of equal participation and active engagement, we must not forget the people, the individual scale. We need to target corruption at all levels, individual, national and global.

Hence, what if we started focusing in giving individuals tools to feel connected and to see the big picture, . in order to expand our circle of sense of belonging to more broad concepts such as humanity and the planet we live in. Is it too difficult to believe that we can all feel connected as a global family? We all need to take responsibility for the societies we build, it is not only up to government leaders and CEO’s from global corporations, it is up to every single one of us.

In our roadmap for resilient, inclusive and sustainable environment, human rights must be at the forefront of our planning, without leaving anybody behind. Fighting corruption is therefore unquestionable in order to attain sustainable development. Prosecution and criminalization will be just a part of the holistic approach. For corruption to end, it also needs to be prevented. Main agreed strategies include law enforcement, transparency mechanisms, accountable systems, civil society participation and freedom of press. But we must not forget to invest in the individual scale, empowering the vulnerable, strengthening personal ethics and even challenging social behaviours that encourage corruption, such as our notions of success and thrive for immediate satisfaction. Only then sustainable development might start to shift from a concept to a reality.



Karina Izquierdo

Karina Izquierdo is an Architect with a strong interest in public policies for sustainable urban development. She has specialized in advanced metropolitan solutions for sustainable development, the New Urban Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals. She currently works as an Architect and Planning consultant in Mexico, volunteers with NGOs for human values, youth empowerment and climate change action advocacy. She previously worked in Argentina as part of the EBAI program developing a critical route for Buenos Aires for a low carbon emission city and in China as project Architect.
    4 Comments on this post.
  • Carl
    14 March 2017 at 5:27 pm
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    Amazing article. It is in our hands.

  • sergio
    14 March 2017 at 6:20 pm
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    I think it is very important to work about human values and to bring a broader vision, these will lead to expand our sense of belonging, and as a result when something is yours you can not corrupt it.

  • Lilian Galante
    15 March 2017 at 6:27 am
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    This is a discussion that cannot wait any longer. Corruption, which we once thought was a national problem that affected only those within specified borders, should now be treated as a global responsibility given its global environmental consequences. Thanks a lot for opening this much needed dialogue. Hopefully global leaders and the international community will understand the urgency of pressuring corrupt regimes around the world to change their practices before its toot late.

  • Marco Narvaez
    31 March 2017 at 7:46 am
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    I really enjoyed the article, in terms of raising consciousness towards how political awareness affects our environment and planet in a larger scale.
    On this matter, the spectrum of study implies other scientific disciplines such as geopolitics, global finance and economics. Mainly because the empiric cases in different countries points out the corruption as a global systemic issue.
    Congratulations to Karina, I look forward to read from her soon.

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