The Environment, Main Collateral Damage of an Unusual Level of Corruption

Lebanon ranks low on the list of world corruption. Its environment is degrading fast. Is there a link between the two? Many, experts say.

Ever since my journalistic career began at the end of the 1990s, topics such as unregulated quarries, bad waste management, untreated wastewater or aggravated air pollution were already hot issues. More than fifteen years and many articles later, I realize that those problems remain largely unresolved, if not worsened. To understand the reasons of this unfortunate reality, one can only look for structural problems within the management of those files in Lebanon. Environmental problems are not separate from very serious complications currently affecting the Lebanese arena: political instability, insecurity, etc. However, knowing that huge amounts of money and strenuous efforts have been spent in trying to solve environmental issues, only one paradigm can shed light on this matter: the remarkable extent of corruption that weights on the country’s institutions. Such corruption, present at all levels, has become institutionalized, as if it were an entity endowed with its own form of life, controlling the whole system.

In the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International dating December 2014, Lebanon ranked 136th out of 175 countries. It ranked 128th on the 2013 list: things seem to get worse year after year. The effects of corruption are felt in all the aspects of daily life, according to the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) site, not the least being the weakening of the relation between citizens and official institutions. Moreover, a clear link has been established by the NGO Transparency International, in a study done by two American prestigious universities, Yale and Columbia, between the level of corruption in a country and the quality of its environment. This study shows that a country with a corrupt system has 75% chance to have a degraded environment. For proof, three of the countries benefiting from the best environmental performances, namely Finland, Norway and Canada, are also amongst the least corrupt on the planet. If there is a need of another proof, we can easily notice that Lebanon, one of the most corrupt countries nowadays by all standards, also presents the unfortunate sight of a degraded environment.

The variety of forms taken by corruption (as defined by LTA) are seen in Lebanon and, as we will see later on, all lead to abuse environmental resources, i.e. misuse of public funds, sums of money unfairly extorted by public servants under diverse false pretexts, non-compliance to regulations following bribes to supervisory authorities, biased judicial decisions, payment of bribes by companies in order to win public contracts, etc. Three experts in anti-corruption campaigns and in environment share their experiences in this matter.

“So Common that Nobody Talks About it Anymore”

“The level of corruption has become alarming in Lebanon. It is as if there were no more means of sanction against corrupt individuals and groups anymore, neither in the judicial system nor within the political institutions.” Rabih el-Chaër, president of the anti-corruption NGO “Sakker el-Dekkaneh”, is worried. “I find that the whole political class, despite the differences between its components, has agreed on operating a putsch by extending their own parliamentarian mandates and refraining from electing a president of the Republic”, he says. “In order to legitimize this putsch, they put pressure on the Constitutional Court to approve their actions, and they constantly delay the adoption of a new electoral law that would allow the Lebanese citizens to choose their representatives freely.”

For Rabih el-Chaër, the root of all problems lies in the fact that this political class fears nothing in the present configuration: on the one hand, the Lebanese divided society is not likely to conduct a revolution as was the case in other countries of the region, and, on the other hand, the officials have made sure that no regulative authority can at any time bring the corrupt to account. “The Lebanese political parties usually receive funding from abroad, and are therefore accountable only to foreign powers”, he notices. “This allows them to bribe all kind of institutions, including some media, and to offer much needed social services to the population. The parties might be divided on many issues, but they easily find common ground when it comes to sharing the cake in the Council of ministers. And in case one of them is accused of wrongdoing, they politicize the matter, taking advantage of the divisions within the population that they, themselves, created.”

As a result of this political combination, any controversial file that finds its way to Court is shelved indefinitely and forgotten instantly, including environmental files. “The politicians control the judiciary system”, he explains. “Judges are usually nominated by leaders and political parties. They are too afraid of unpleasant transfers if they take decisions that their “benefactors” may dislike. Administrative regulatory institutions such as the Court of Auditors are also controlled by political entities, which greatly affect their work.”

According to him, figures tend to prove this tendency: in 2007, Lebanon ranked 99th on the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. That year, the Central Inspection issued not less than 200 decisions condemning public employees (although not high-ranking officials). In 2014, this same institution merely took 87 such decisions, while it was clear that the corruption worsened.”

The activist clearly considers that this configuration is ruining the environment. “When you see Beirut from a plane landing in its airport, you cannot help but being struck by the jungle of concrete it has become”, he says. “Lack of urban planning and chaos in construction is one of the main causes of pollution and deforestation in Lebanon. Where does it come from? Once more, the answer can be found in corrupt practices. When one tries to obtain a construction permit from the Directorate General of Urban Planning (the fourth in the list of corrupt institutions established by “Sakker el-Dekkaneh”, based on a survey among the population), the following usually happens: according to our information, the public employee that receives the file transmits it to at least three entrepreneurs who deal with this institution, in a totally illegal manner. If one of them is interested, they would contact the person who submitted the file to the directorate. In case the latter refuses to deal with them, he will have to wait a long time for his permit to be issued. In case he accepts, things become much easier, and the money starts flowing in one of those feudal leaders’ funds.”

For him, the chaos in urban planning and construction is so lucrative that it is financing political parties’ slush funds. “To that should be added the weak implementation of laws and, sometimes, their inexistence, as well as the lack of accountability of public servants”, Rabih el-Chaër says. “Corruption has become so systematic and generalized that no one even talks about it anymore. Even citizens refrain from protesting because it often serves their interests.”

“The Engine that Drives all the Rest”

“Corruption is the engine that drives all the decisions taken by political leaders.” Naji Kodeih, an environmental expert, is an activist nowadays, but he was also employed in the ministry of Environment for ten years. When asked by which means corruption affects the environment, he has no trouble getting into specifics. “Usually, countries have an institution specialized in planning and elaborating a common vision to which all projects must conform”, he says. “In my ten years in the ministry, I have seen eight ministers come and go. None of them took into consideration the work of his predecessor. It became clear to me that all projects were considered as a way to satisfy the personal interests of the group surrounding the minister, very eager to spend the money at their disposal.”

One of the privileged ways to “spend” money is by conducting studies that often are never implemented. “I remember a time when one of the ministers decided to hire foreign experts to conduct a study on industrial waste”, he says. “These experts held meetings with me for days on a row, taking notes of the information and analysis of the situation that I provided. They wrote a report before they went back to their country. I never heard from them or about the study again. Industrial waste was also the subject of a study conducted by a famous Lebanese consulting firm in 1999-2000, at the instigation of the ministry. This study, too, was never implemented, although it cost more than a million dollars. We had plans to manage most of the industrial waste such as waste oils, tires, etc. We had a clear vision on industrial zones classification in Lebanon. What happened to all these studies made in the course of the last fifteen years?”

He mentions another example: that of the wastewater treatment in Lebanon. “I was a member in the committee charged with coordinating with the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) on the matter”, Naji Kodeih remembers. “My role was to prepare a report on the compliance with the Barcelona Convention (for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea), signed by Lebanon. At the time, in 2000-2001, the projects included nine wastewater treatment plants spread along the coast, for a cost of 400 million dollars. It is very difficult to know, fifteen years later, what was really done and how this money was spent. All we have are unfinished projects, wastewater plants completed yet still closed, because they were never connected with the sewers. Why do such absurd things happen in Lebanon? Do we lack competence? I don’t think so. The people responsible for such a mess should be held accountable.”

Naji Kodeih refuses to talk about mere wasting of money. “Wasting of money means that you spend 1500 dollars on a project while it should cost a thousand only”, he says. “But in cases like this, money is spent on projects that lack any utility and that will never be implemented.”

The expert is surprised that international donors, who often finance this kind of projects, don’t react to such obvious corruption. “The financing comes either in the form of a credit or a donation”, he says. “In the first case, I guess the lender is first and foremost concerned with getting his money back, with interests. In the second case, the donor usually imposes experts from his home country, making fellow countrymen benefit from the project. As for the Lebanese counterparts, they make money on commissions. One example illustrates that reality very well: a few years ago, “Electricité de France” established a protocol defining the needs of Lebanon in the electricity sector up to 2025. We can easily notice it still has no effect on our daily lives. Isn’t that not corruption on the part of our institutions?”

“A Weakened Civil Society”

Weak enforcement of laws, including environmental ones, conflicts of interest between institutions concerned by the same files and lack of awareness on the part of municipalities and public opinion, are on top of the list of the means by which corrupt practices lead to environmental degradation, according to Fifi Kallab, expert in socio-economics of environment and president of the NGO Byblos Ecologia. “Take for example the municipal waste issue: three ministers – Environment, Interior and Municipalities, and Administrative reform – as well as the CDR, are in charge of it”, she says. “We get lost in this mess, and the conflicts between ministers get in the way of any real solution. I am convinced this is intentional as it allows the officials to escape accountability while blaming each other for the failures.”

The long-time environmental activist is also sorry to observe a phenomenon that, according to her, contributes to add to the supremacy of corrupt practices in daily life in Lebanon: the weakening of militancy within the civil society. “Life in this country gets harder by the day”, she notices. “It becomes very difficult to convince young people to volunteer for a cause. They have a hard time making a living, at a stage where they are often starting a family. Militancy in NGOs is just vanishing. People are increasingly interested in environmental NGOs for the opportunity of managing projects funded by donors. All I can say is that people seem to be more qualified than in the past, when we started our activism in the nineties, but they are less motivated to fight for a cause.”

She adds: “This is weakening the civil society also because there is more money flowing for the projects, and the NGOs are more and more in competition with each other. This is also why political parties and political leaders are so eager to establish environmental associations, with agendas very different from ours.” She agrees with Naji Kodeih on the fact that projects are a privileged way to make money. “All those projects, even if they are funded by international donors or private sector, should be submitted to the control of an authority such as the ministry of Environment, but it is far from being the case”, she says. “In Hbeline, in Jbeil, was established, many years ago, a treatment plant for the waste of the whole Jbeil district. It was a composting plant due to replace a poorly managed landfill that we all complained about. This project, initiated by the Federation of municipalities of the district, went terribly wrong. The composting plant never functioned and it is still closed today. Yet no one was held accountable until this day.”

Municipal Waste Management, a “Scandal”

The municipal waste issue raised by Fifi Kallab is one of the worst examples of corruption known in Lebanon. Only recently, the government has adopted a new national plan based on the division of the country into six zones, every one of which will be managed, in the future, by private companies which win the public tender. According to observers, this new plan is a mere extension of the system of monopoly that prevailed for the last twenty years, except for the number of companies involved (three or four instead of one). The Lebanese people incur one of the highest costs for the treatment per ton in the whole region, for a minimal composting and recycling, and for the dumping of nearly the entire waste of the Beirut and Mount Lebanon area in the biggest landfill of the country in Naameh (South of Beirut). Meanwhile, the protests of the inhabitants of the villages close to the landfill, who say they are dying a slow death, remain unheard.

“One should work in the sector of waste in Lebanon to make a fortune”, says Rabih el-Chaër, smiling. He adds: “The monopoly of one company over this whole sector for years is a big scandal. The Lebanese people pay a very high price for the treatment of their waste. Every time there were attempts to revise the contract of this company in the Council of ministers, they failed. What motivated the adoption of the new plan, according to our observations, is that more political leaders want to have their own company to run their own district the way they wish. While, in the past, a few leaders were implicated in this one company, today, everybody wants a bit of the cake.”

The biggest scandal of all, say the experts, is that the huge budget given to the private sector to treat the waste comes from the Independent Municipal Fund, while municipalities are denied any role in treating or collecting waste. According to official figures given by the government, 80% of the money in this fund is being spent on the waste treatment, to pay for the private company in charge of the collection and treatment of waste. As a consequence, very little remain for true development projects.

“The spirit of corruption, which became a true doctrine in Lebanon, was born in the reconstruction period after the war, in the nineties”, says Naji Kodeih. “The main political leaders of this period created a parallel administration that was directly linked to them, without a possibility of accountability through the usual institutions. Meanwhile, the official institutions fell into a state of disorganization that remains today. The waste treatment problem started at this period. My guess is that the political forces knew there was plenty of money in the Independent Municipal Fund and found a means to sneak it out.”

For Naji Kodeih, “the vision remains the same today”. “Nobody thinks of the problem of waste in a scientific way, or tries to deal with it in a rational manner, taking into consideration the needs of Lebanon”, he says. “The debate that took place in the Council of Ministers over many sessions last January, and led to the adoption of the newest national plan, had nothing to do with waste treatment. Ministers were all concerned with their political parties’ shares. They were asking this simple question: why should one private company take all the credit and benefits? Let’s get more companies in the game and divide these benefits. Nobody, meanwhile, answers the essential question on where and how the waste will be treated, in the absence of any strategy.”

Fifi Kallab also criticizes the lack of vision of political leaders who, according to her, are strangely alike in their search for their personal interests. “The private company in charge of the waste treatment was required initially (in 1997) to collect 800 tons a day, compost 300 and dispose the rest in the landfill”, she says. “It didn’t respect the initial contract and yet nobody held it accountable. Why? Because one political leader insisted, at that time, to add new villages to the contract. As a result, the company would collect 1200 tons a day instead of 800, and would not increase its capacity for composting the organic waste. It was a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

“In the new national plan, one sentence was added although it wasn’t approved by all the ministers: it concerns the introduction of incinerators in the country in a seven year period”, she adds. “To the officials I met since then, I asked one simple question: what will you do with the toxic ash that will result from the operation of incineration, knowing that only two countries in Europe have the technical knowhow to treat such ashes? Nobody would answer that question. It seems the incinerators’ deal is particularly dear to one of the ministers. Meanwhile, we don’t have a possibility to appeal against such decisions taken by the government.”

As for Naji Kodeih, he thinks that the future companies that will take charge of the different zones will necessarily be proxies used by the political forces in order to better control the population of these areas. “This example shows that corruption is deeply rooted in the administration and the political class, and carried out by a system of mafias that lives on it”, he says. “Environment has been, and still is, one of the main collateral damage of corruption because, in the mentality of our leaders and of our people, environment is a plentiful resource that belongs to nobody, and can be looted by anybody. The privatization of public maritime domain provides a great example for this. But this is wrong. Environment is the main resource of Lebanon. Whatever we destroy today, we will deprive future generations of.”

Civil Society, Public Opinion, Media

The NGOs don’t have a possibility to appeal against decisions taken by the government, says Fifi Kallab. But then, what does that say about their capacity to put pressure on the government? “The NGOs have gathered recently to protest against this last national plan”, she says. “I feel that since then, some municipalities have voiced their concern, and the public opinion is better informed.”

What then about the municipalities? Local authorities have a good knowledge of their areas and can react to environmental concerns. Yet Fifi Kallab doesn’t believe in their capacity to play an effective role in the current configuration. “The municipal councils are often elected on basis of the influence of local families instead of the competence of the members”, she says.

Naji Kodeih is not of this opinion. “Recently, the minister of Environment said that municipalities were given a chance to prove their capacity in treating their waste, and failed at it”, he says. “I would remind him that he cannot judge the capacity of the municipalities as long as they are denied the budget that is rightfully theirs in the Independent Municipal Fund.”

Corruption is depleting the natural resources, and costing the Lebanese citizen much more than it should. Shouldn’t the public opinion get hold of this matter and ask for its rights? “Public opinion seems totally absent”, says Rabih el-Chaër. “It is constantly under pressure: if it rebels, security threats suddenly pop up. As for the political class, it knows very well how to manipulate public opinion. Yet our statistics show that only 13% of the Lebanese people have a positive image of the politicians.”

Fifi Kallab doesn’t have many illusions either: “The public opinion is neither well informed nor interested in such matters. It is often manipulated on communitarian basis, which explains why it remains divided although environmental problems affect everybody equally. All it takes is to politicize the hot issues, and that would motivate people to keep out of trouble.”

Media is the last stakeholder of the civil society to be able to play a significant role in combating corruption and promoting environmental practices. Does it? “The media sector is not homogeneous”, says Naji Kodeih. “Some media are owned by politicians and have an agenda of their own. Others are manipulated in order to provide a forum to spread specific ideas. Some media are only interested in sensational news, and do not raise issues unless they are hot. Journalists who do their jobs thoroughly and practice investigative journalism are not very effective, I’m afraid, the same way all sincere people, including activists, are not being heard nowadays. I think, however, that they should collaborate with each other.”

Rabih el-Chaër thinks media are not active enough in investigative reporting on corruption, most of the time because of lack of funds and/or freedom. “It is true that access to information remains limited in Lebanon, and that the journalists are not well protected in the absence of an effective judicial system, but it is sometimes enough to disclose information even when there is only a presumption of corruption”, he says.

A shared responsibility

In the light of the environmental degradation, the situation seems very dark. If corrupt practices are largely responsible for the abuse against natural resources, and if corruption is so deeply rooted in the institutions and mentalities that it has become an institution in itself, how can it be possible to escape this vicious circle?

Asked about solutions, Naji Kodeih says he has a radical opinion on this matter: “In order to consider saving the environment, we should do no less than change this whole system. Meanwhile, in our day to day life, we can only face the present system and disclose whatever information we get.”

“We should refuse to let go”, insists Rabih el-Chaër. “The key to reverse the tendency lies in the judicial system: if, as it happened in Italy already, judges start taking courageous decisions and enforcing the laws, we can hope to break this vicious circle.”

Fifi Kallab is convinced the key lies in the civil society. “We should encourage voluntary work and activism”, she says. “In parallel, awareness campaigns should be conducted on a long-term basis.”

So, solving environmental issues implies a successful fight against corruption? That can hardly be considered as good news. Seen from this perspective, the fight for preserving natural resources is extremely hard. It will take relentless effort in order to restore accountability, and an acknowledgement that this task is a shared responsibility. If urgent action is not undertaken, it is obvious polluters would roam free indefinitely, protecting each other from harm. Fifi Kallab tells an anecdote that illustrates well the present situation: “I once told a politician that corruption files implicating his own brother were piling up. His answer to me was: “When they arrest others, let them arrest him.” Very eloquent, don’t you think?”