Despite a longstanding moratorium on logging in the Congo Basin, illegal forest concessions granted by governments in the region are rife. In the Amazon, companies involved in illegal gold mining and logging often use political connections to protect their interests, or hide millions of dollars in profits in US real estate. In Brazil, bribery in the judiciary has facilitated land grabbing by agri-business. In Bangladesh, more than a third of climate adaptation funds are embezzled. And globally, supply chain collusion means around 30% of all timber is illegally harvested.
Illegal and unsustainable natural resource exploitation enabled by crime and corruption, and related social and environmental impacts, occur because powerful groups and individuals benefit. Environmental corruption is ubiquitous and intentional—it is also frequently the elephant in the room that conservationists need to understand and address.
How PEA can help
Tackling harmful vested interests (those ways in which groups and people benefit from damage to the natural environment) and corruption (the abuse of power for private gain) requires us to understand who has power and how they are using it.
That’s why WWF and others are increasingly turning to and championing the use of political economy analysis—or PEA—across the conservation community. PEA is all about power: who has it, how and why they use it, and with that, how change happens. And there are two big reasons why we use it.
Firstly, by understanding and engaging in power dynamics, we can be more effective. We see the profound impacts of vested interests on people and nature. Unless we tackle these, we will struggle to prevent injustice and environmental harm. Understanding power dynamics can help us uncover the root causes of the problems we are trying to address and find ways to work with political realities to effect change.
Secondly, good intentions are not enough. For anyone with a humanitarian background, this adage will not be new. Nearly 40 years ago, Live Aid galvanised over £50 million in famine relief for Ethiopia, only for funding to become enmeshed in controversy over claims that its efforts inadvertently prolonged war and suffering in Ethiopia. Humanitarianism’s long struggle to balance a neutral, impartial mandate whilst working in highly politicised environments has given rise to the principle of Do No Harm, committing aid groups to preventing and mitigating negative impacts of their actions on people where they work.
A similar challenge faces the conservation community. As conservationists, we operate in political contexts, both in the countries where we work and in our own daily lives, and we bring resources, influence, and power to the places where we engage. In complex, political environments, efforts to prevent and address climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental injustice can sometimes risk unintended consequences.
For instance, conservation efforts undertaken without understanding the political economy context may exacerbate inequalities. In addressing biodiversity loss and climate change, we must be alert to these risks and plan interventions that avoid and mitigate them. This can help ensure that conservation contributes to better governance and more equitable outcomes, benefiting those who live in and around biodiversity-rich areas.
PEA allows us to pay explicit attention to these kinds of risks, unpack how our work might have unforeseen impacts, take more informed decisions about where and how we work, and make conscious choices about the balance of risks. See the scenario below for an illustration of how PEA can work.