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Suspicion of corruption can hinder sustainable use of natural resources

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Widespread suspicion of corruption in the utilisation of natural resources can increase the danger of corruption in resource governance systems, which in turn can impede sustainable usage. These are the findings in a new collaborative study of the University of Iceland and Stockholm University published in the political science journal Politics and Governance. 

Jóhanna Gísladóttir, doctoral student in environment and natural resources at the University of Iceland and Stockholm University is first author. Sigurbjörg Sigurgeirsdóttir, professor at the University of Iceland's Faculty of Political Science, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, professor at the Faculty of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, and Ingrid Stjenrquist, research scientists at the Department of Physical Geography at Stockholm University are co-authors.

The study discussed in the article is part of "Adaptation to a new economic reality" (AdaptEconII); an Innovative Training Network (ITN) funded in the frame of H2020 and the Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions, and led Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, professor at the University of Iceland. The aim of Innovative Training Networks is to train a new generation of creative, entrepreneurial and innovative early-stage researchers; equipped to face current and future challenges and convert knowledge and ideas into products and services for economic and social benefit.  The research involved twelve doctoral students and numerous research scientists.

"Increased discussion on climate changes has underlined the importance of knowledge in the sustainable use of natural resources," says Jóhanna. "this has led to the implementation of systems to control the overexploitation of renewable energy sources and stipulate the rules," says Jóhanna. She adds that corruption is one of the factors that can prevent sustainable use of natural resources, but corruption occurs when individuals or companies cheat the system, undermining both the natural resources and the system in place managing it. 

"Increased knowledge and understanding on which processes reduce or encourage the risk of corruption at all stages of resource management increases our ability to react."

"The results indicate that comprehensive and ambitious legislation does not necessarily translate into successful resource governance systems. It seems that there is a vicious circle of cause and effect in play.  In general, the institutions that were put in place to enforce and monitor the legal codes and regulations did not have the capacity to carry out their role due to lack of manpower and funding," says Jóhanna Gísladóttir, doctoral student and first author of the article. IMAGE/Kristinn Ingvarsson.

Jóhanna Gísladóttir

Legislation alone does not ensure sustainability

The research published in the article in Politics and Governance attempts to shed light on the question of where corruption risks in the governance of renewable resources are located, and how they have been addressed in European countries. The researchers opted for a comparative case study design, looking into the fisheries sector in Iceland and the forestry sector in Romania. "These systems were chosen to study the criteria of whether countries that measure low in corruption are better equipped to reduce the the risk of corruption than countries where corruption measures high. 

"In addition, these natural resources sectors are very important for the economic and social development in these countries. The results are based on 25 interviews with various stakeholders using qualitative coding and systems analysis to analyse the interviews," says Jóhanna.

"The results indicate that comprehensive and ambitious legislation does not necessarily translate into successful resource governance systems. It seems that there is a vicious circle of cause and effect in play.  In general, the institutions that were put in place to enforce and monitor the legal codes and regulations did not have the capacity to carry out their role due to lack of manpower and funding," says Jóhanna. "When supervision is lacking the stakeholders may gradually lose sight of the fact that bending the rules has consequences. The more widespread this assumption, the more work it takes to supervise and follow-up on rules and regulations. Additionally, interviewees were generally found to have a widespread perception of there being a corrupt relationship between politics and big companies operating in their sectors.

Jóhanna says that the findings suggest that when people hold such perceptions, it undermines anti-corruption policy efforts in the resource sectors, which can then impede sustainable resource management.

"It is important to open up a discourse on the existence of corruption risks in the governance of renewable resources.  The utilisation of renewable natural resources often has a long history and the public is invested in good management and sustainability. No system in resource management is perfect, however, improvements that reduce the risk of corruption are important and require both knowledge and political will," concludes Jóhanna.

The article in Politics and Governance