Exposing corruption has always been a dangerous job. It’s about to become even more dangerous, especially for those of us targeting one of the most corrupt industries – oil, gas and mining. A high-stakes sector, it is prone to opaqueness, vested economic interests and unscrupulous activities. At the same time, it’s an industry that can – when well managed – be an engine for growth and poverty eradication in many poor nations.
Citizens working to foster transparency of the extractive sector are under attack. As liberal and democratic values recede worldwide and the unbridled hunger for natural resources continues, those calling out corrupt practices are facing harassment, legal and extralegal obstacles and, in worst case scenarios, death. Fighting for a more equitable and sustainable management of natural resources has never been as treacherous, as testified by Publish What You Pay (PWYP) members on the ground in a new publication documenting cases of repression around the world.
In Niger, Ali Idrissa, a transparency activist and member of the PWYP Board of Directors, has weathered several discretionary arrests in 2014, surveillance and, most recently, attempts to discredit his call for an accountable management of Niger’s uranium reserves in the form of vicious smear campaigns. In the context of a heightened political and economic crisis, transparency fighters like Ali are the first in line when the government is looking to silence its critics. Meanwhile, Niger stands at the very bottom of the Human Development Index while being the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium – enough to power every third light bulb in France.
Ali’s story is one of many. In fact, the numbers surfacing are terrifying. In 2015, 185 environmental/land defenders were killed, 42 of which were opposing mining and other extractive projects, according to Global Witness. That’s an increase from 116 killings in 2014 and 92 in 2013. There is strong evidence that these represent only the tip of the iceberg: for every reported, high-level case of murder, many more go unreported. Authoritarian and corrupt government officials and corporate executives are attempting to silence those questioning the unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources around the world. When people legitimately want a say in the stewardship of their collective natural endowment, they often experience pushback from political and corporate entities seeking to defend their own interests.
As we celebrate the International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December, let us remember that transparency often comes at great personal cost to anti-corruption campaigners like Ali. The global anti-corruption movement owes respect and protection to him and his colleagues. As transparency activists from around the world gather in Panama City this week to participate in the International Anti-Corruption Conference, securing civic space and fundamental civil liberties will feature high on the agenda. As long as civil society isn’t able to freely organise, speak out and ask uncomfortable questions of governments, transparency and accountability will remain distant dreams and those who exploit natural resources for their own private gain will continue to be able to operate with impunity.
Together we can create the momentum needed to reverse repression against citizens who simply want to reap some of the benefits derived from the exploitation of their natural endowment. Working closer together with human and women’s rights activists, anti-corruption campaigners and environmental defenders, we will be stronger to take on that fight.