Empowering Whistleblowing to Counter Environmental Crimes and Prevent Pandemics

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Global COVID-19

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has generated profound global structural effects that cannot be easily reversed: It has been weakening governments, increasing social instability, intensifying poverty, and strengthening nonstate armed actors. The pandemic should be a wake-up call and a prompt for prioritized and enhanced biodiversity conservation, habitat preservation, intensified efforts to crack down on poaching and wildlife trafficking, and smarter, healthier approaches to wildlife trade. Instead, struggling governments eager to mitigate devastating COVID-19-related economic downturns are easily tempted to adopt misguided responses that tolerate intensified environmental devastation to increase revenue flows. Permitting more unrestrained and unsustainable environmental resource extraction and turning a blind eye to corruption in natural resource management, such policies will only produce vicious circles of more zoonotic pandemics, public health crises, and economic downturns. Blowing the whistle on corruption in natural resource management and illicit economies in natural resources can play an important role in protecting biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and, by slowing down the arrival of another zoonotic epidemic and preventing its escalation into a pandemic, the health of humankind and of the global economy. However, to make the tool of whistleblowing adopted robustly and effectively outside the United States, its promotion will need to pay enhanced attention to the safety of whistleblowers – for many, that may mean providing asylum in the United States.


Sources of Zoonotic Diseases and Multifaceted Devastating Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a result of trade or trafficking in wild animal meat and exploded in the Wuhan food market in China. In 2003, China experienced another epidemic, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), again containing meat from wild animals. Across East and Southeast Asia, open air markets selling wild animal meat and animals illegally caught, now kept in appalling and dangerously unhygienic conditions, and markets selling wild animal meat without proper hygienic measures in place, pose high risks of severe zoogenic pandemics as I highlighted in my book The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It.

Such markets also exist in Africa and Latin America, and their prevalence is increasing. Paradoxically, COVID-19 has only exacerbated poaching, as poor populations living close to wildlife and park rangers saw ecotourism income evaporate. Meanwhile, wildlife trafficking around the world, including in the Americas, has not diminished in intensity while spreading geographically. This trafficking in wildlife is one dangerous source of zoonotic diseases. 

Habitat destruction due to logging and agriculture – which pushes many taxa of animals close together, facilitates viral mutations, and intensifies human-wildlife interface and viral spillover to humans – is another major source of zoonotic diseases.

All of these practices have dramatically increased the frequency with which zoonotic diseases are emerging. The fact that COVID-19 has already induced a significant migration of many poor urban residents into rural areas — the first such reverse in migration patterns in decades– only exacerbates pressures on natural resources, the destruction of habitat, such as deforestation, and wildlife trade and trafficking. 

As of the end of October 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has cost 1.16 million lives, infected almost 43 million, and caused an economic loss of $27 trillion in the lost output alone, not counting other financial outlays associated with the pandemic. The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the pandemic will have pushed 150 million people into extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.9 a day, and tens of millions more worldwide into poverty from the middle class. 

The pandemic is weakening the governing capacity of governments in multifaceted ways. The inability of governments to sufficiently offset the profound devastation of legal economies, and people’s livelihoods limits the budgets for all kinds of public goods expenditures, including public safety and security budgets. It profoundly weakens the legitimacy of governments and political systems. Political instability and social strife increase under such conditions. So do authoritarian power grabs, not necessarily through outright coup d’états, but through the incremental weakening of accountability mechanisms and institutional capacity at all branches and levels (executive, legislative, judicial) and delays of elections. The extent of government weakness will, of course, vary across regions and countries.

Nonetheless, concurrently, the relative power of criminal and militant groups and other nonstate armed actors is strengthened – also in multifaceted ways. Significantly increased numbers of people are dependent on illicit economies for basic livelihoods and on criminal or militant groups for the provision of basic public-goods services. The political capital of nonstate armed actors, most intensely of those sponsoring labor-intensive illicit economies, grows. These effects will not be redressed rapidly even after the pandemic is under control or a vaccine becomes widely available. Instead, they can easily last a decade or more. 

Compounded Effects of Bad Policy Responses

Yet many policies that weakened governments may be tempted to adopt can all too easily exacerbate the threats and problems. The economies that are particularly likely to intensify as a result of COVID-19 in both their illicit and licit forms are economies in natural resources – wildlife trade, logging, and mining. Seductively and dangerously, these economies promise to provide jobs and revenues in the short term. But they pose immense threats of further intensification of zoonotic pandemics and associated public health and economic devastation and political instability, as well as exacerbated global warming. 

Lacking law enforcement capacities in rural spaces and forest areas where militant and criminal groups operate, they may instead be highly susceptible to powerful internal vested interests encouraging deforestation, such as powerful logging and mining industries, and to external actors, such as China and Chinese traders, seeking primary commodities such as timber, minerals, and wildlife.

In some localities, governments are simply relegating or yielding control to criminal groups and nonstate armed actors. Or they may engage in collusion with them and tolerate expanded illicit economies in natural resources, despite their risks of new viral spillovers and sped up and intensified new zoonotic pandemics.

These bad approaches are already evident. The COVID-19 lockdowns may have prevented forest rangers from patrolling forests and natural habitats, but not criminal groups and powerful logging and farming industries. Impoverished people in urban spaces and rural areas have been entering forests to log, set off fires, and convert crucial biodiversity habitats and carbon-capturing systems into ash and, ultimately, cattle grassland or African oil palm plantations. 

Lax and weakening government rules in Indonesia and Brazil exemplify the susceptibility of revenue-starved governments to vested interests and approaches that exacerbate global warming, zoonotic disease pandemics, and devastating fires. Through the middle of August, more fires have burned in Brazil, mostly in the Amazon, but also in Pantanal and the Cerrado, than last year, despite President Jair Bolsonaro’s nominal 120-day ban on fires.

Even though in September 2020, the Green Climate Fund questionably awarded Indonesia a $103.8 billion payment for preventing forestation and thus releasing carbon dioxide between 2014 and 2016, significant deforestation and fires there persist at very high rates. In the first weeks of 2020, forest loss in Indonesia rose by 50 percent. The deforestation is not only environmentally catastrophic and facilitates zoonotic pandemics: the associated fires that pollute the air with dangerous PM2.5 particles further weaken lungs, amplify the dangerous health impacts of COVID-19 on the respiratory system, and augment COVID-19 death rates. And yet, criminal groups and criminally-behaving companies continually set off the illegal fires even in the most biodiversity rich, catastrophic fire-prone, and high-carbon-release places such as peat forests.

And governments avert their eyes.

Making the Powerful Tool of Whistleblowing Effective Around the World

Given government apathy or outright complicity, encouraging whistleblowing on unsustainable or criminal extraction of natural resources is an important tool. Under US laws, it has been deployed powerfully and effectively in all kinds of policy domains, including environmental protection. The U.S. laws are powerful because they can apply to cases in faraway parts of the world as long as some connections to the United States – whether U.S. supply chains, consumers, or financial institutions – can be established.

But in many settings abroad, blowing the whistle on malfeasance, corruption, and complicity in illegality faces formidable obstacles that need to be overcome – lack of knowledge, indifferent customers, preexisting corruption and culture of impunity, competition between economic and environmental interests in local communities, and most importantly physical insecurity and threats to life whistleblowers may face:

The lack of knowledge about the power of the whistleblowing tool is the first challenge. Local environmental activists witnessing illegal logging or poaching deep in tropical forests of Colombia, Peru, or the Congo Basin may have never heard of such potent legal tools. Nor will have had local subsidiaries of extractive companies and government officials, whether courageous and determined to fight unsustainable and illicit resource extraction or complicit in it.

Local actors engaged in problematic extraction may be particularly dismissive of environmental concerns if they ship their products to non-Western markets where environmental consciousness is low, such as China or India, where neither retailers nor consumers demand certification for environmental sustainability. As I recount in The Extinction Market, during my years of fieldwork on poaching, wildlife trafficking, and illegal logging in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I have often encountered a sense by logging companies or wildlife trade exporters that customers in China or India do not care about the environmental impact of the goods they are buying: timber, beef, soy, coal, or wildlife products, and all they care about price. Whether or not factually correct, such sense among local intermediaries and their lack of knowledge that they can be liable under U.S. laws when their transactions go through U.S. ports or banking systems even the ultimate destination is in countries without strong laws against corruptions or environmental protection perpetuates environmental destruction and zoonotic pandemic risks.

Such perceptions may be all the more reinforced as China’s approach to promoting its trade and infrastructure abroad under the Belt Road Initiative and outside of the framework has often been indifferent to or outright reliant on corruption and often heavy-handed and highly intrusive into local affairs. This is especially problematic with Chinese industries supported by the highest levels of the Chinese government, such as the Traditional Chinese Medicine industry now promoted as part of a New Health Silk Road by China and interlinked in complex ways with legal and illegal wildlife trade. Yet when Chinese doctors themselves warned of the dangers to patients relying on unproven claims of TCM products to cure illnesses, the Xi Jingpin’s supported immensely powerful TCM industry mobilized to get the “whistleblower” doctors arrested. Other politically inconvenient actors have been accused of corruption or violations of laws and disappeared or sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. The space for whistleblowing on TCM has shrunk even further with the chilling effect of a proposed law in China to criminalize criticism of TCM.

But disapproval of whistleblowing and efforts to protect environmental resources can also come from within local communities, not just traders or powerful external markets. As I detailed in the chapter on Local Community Involvement of The Extinction Market, local communities are hardly uniform in their economic and environmental preferences. Whether internal migrants to biodiversity rich areas from other parts of the country and even indigenous communities, individuals and families have finally varied preferences as to short-term economic gains versus long-term environmental sustainability. When they do not feel anchored to a locality and move in simply to participate in resource extraction, they may be particularly opposed to environmental protection and pose threats to environmental activists and whistleblowers. Even when that does not translate into death threats, an environmental activist and whistleblower may be ostracized by the local community and even forced to move out. For many, that may be too steep a price to pay – unless support is provided. 

Such local community tensions are highly visible, for example, in the local management of fisheries in Mexico’s Yucatán, where some communities support environmental protection and sustainability and others engage in illegal fishing and piracy, and both organize militias to defend against the other. Fear of retaliatory violence from local communities participating in totoaba poaching and criminal groups involved in that illegal fishing are also prominent in the Upper Gulf of Mexico, where illegal use of gillnets for fishing threatens to drive the vaquita marina porpoise to extinction. For that reason, U.S. offers of large financial rewards for intelligence on totoaba poaching have not produced intelligence, although there is widespread knowledge of who perpetrators are.

Corruption by rangers and a sense of law enforcement and government apathy and complicity and culture of widespread impunity can be debilitating for whistleblowers. There is consistent evidence from criminology studies and assessments of all kinds of anti-crime programs and law enforcement effectiveness that when people denounce crimes, and no action is taken, they still stop denouncing crimes.

The sense of powerlessness and apathy grows, especially when law enforcement forces, such as rangers, are perceived to be corrupt, part of illegal economies, and motivated to take retaliatory actions against those who denounce crime. 

Yet in many parts of the world, positions of rangers and environmental enforcement officers are sometimes sold to the highest bidder. Rangers who receive appointments through such corrupt schemes then must participate in illicit economies to repay their initial investment, sometimes requiring their incur debt, of buying their positions. They may retaliate severely against whistleblowers or others who denounce environmental crimes. Even when rangers do not have to buy their appointment, in a setting of extensive government and law enforcement corruption, they may be forced by their superiors to collect bribes and turn a blind eye to illegality and corruption and collect weekly bribes to pass to their superiors or risk being fired and lose livelihoods for their families.

In such context, special interdiction units (SIUs), also known as sensitive investigative units, are sometimes created to overcome widespread corruption in government and law enforcement. They can be enormously effective, particularly when backed by international law enforcement support from countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom – viz., South Africa’s Scorpions in the 1990s. Yet SIUs are not problem-free and face two challenges: One, when they become very effective and start reaching powerful levels of government, they often get disbanded by governments that want to preserve their corrupt ways. That was also the fate of the Scorpions. Second, without constant external oversight and constant vetting, SIUs have a tendency to go rogue: Since they are effective against criminal actors and their corrupt government networks, they can easily become the most powerful criminals on the block. The best way to be a timber or wildlife trafficker is to be the minister of the environment or the country’s chief rangers, as many an environmental minister and chief ranger have discovered. When SIUs go rogue, they can even retaliate against their sources of intelligence and whistleblowers, sometimes with enormously deadly consequences.

Cutting across these various obstacles is not just the threat to livelihoods and of whistleblowers, but the awful and debilitating threat to their lives. This threat of violence to environmental activists has been steadily increasing in recent years, with over 200 murdered in 2019 alone

What does this mean in terms of strengthening the effectiveness of the whistleblowing tool abroad?

First, it is necessary that knowledge of the long reach of U.S. laws is spread abroad. Environmental NGOs and U.S. government agencies can promote the knowledge. But nothing speaks more loudly and clearly than effective legal actions in U.S. courts that result in serious penalties felt abroad, particularly in markets which local actors consider to have impunity – such as in China and India. 

Second, and most importantly, it is necessary to couple the financial reward inducement for whistleblowers with robust physical protection. Often, neither the U.S. government nor environmental NGOs will be able to provide such protection for whistleblowers abroad – where they have threats from local communities, criminal groups, powerful vested industries, and corrupt law enforcement and government officials. 

The only way to overcome this danger and give whistleblowing the power it has in the United States and Western Europe and can have elsewhere in the world is to provide U.S. asylum to whistleblowers abroad.

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