Costa Corruption

The Central American nation of Costa Rica has long been lauded for its efforts to protect the environment. But persistent corruption is undermining efforts to conserve its biologically-rich forests, according to a new study.

More than 26% of Cost Rica’s territory is covered by protected areas, ranging from national parks where development is largely barred, to forest reserves where activities such as logging are allowed but regulated. The system has helped dramatically reduce deforestation rates, from nearly 12,000 hectares per year in the 1990s to just 3,000 hectares per year in 2000. Illegal logging, however, continues to threaten forests, often on private land surrounding managed areas, Michael J. Miller of the University of South Florida reports in the Journal of Environment and Development.

To understand why, in 2005 Miller conducted in-depth interviews with 15 experts familiar with forestry issues in Costa Rica’s Limon Province. In particular, he focused on the large Amistad-Caribe Conservation Area, where illegal logging is believed to be especially common. The experts, who ranged from government officials to environmentalists and loggers, painted a worrying picture. Forest regulators, they said, were routinely accepting bribes and other favors in exchange for opening protected areas to logging, or allowing loggers to take or transport more trees than allowed.

The regulators “fall into corruption,” Miller concludes, because of “a serious failure to satisfy [their] material needs, including salary, equipment, funds, and staff.” One respondent, for instance, told Miller that “officials no longer earn enough to have a nice house and car, so they participate in corruption.” Others take bribes in order to fix office equipment or buy supplies needed to do their job. Still others are told they’ll get fired if they don’t go along to get along.

Unfortunately, “it will be hard for Costa Rica to provide regulators with better salaries and other needs,” Miller writes. A promising and less expensive alternative, however, is to recruit experts from nonprofit groups to “act as regulatory staff.” These independent officials “are less likely to be friends with loggers,” he adds, and might even be able to work for free.David Malakoff | January 11, 2011

Source: Miller, M. (2010). Persistent Illegal Logging in Costa Rica: The Role of Corruption Among Forestry Regulators. The Journal of Environment & Development DOI: 10.1177/1070496510394319

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