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Googling Earth to fight graft

A few clicks here and a few drags of the mouse there, and one can be in any place in the world. -NST

Sun, Aug 07, 2011
New Straits Times

MALAYSIA - A few clicks here and a few drags of the mouse there, and one can be in any place in the world. At least on Google Earth.

This accessibility and user-friendliness, coupled with the application's ability to show three-dimensional structures, imagery and terrain, have made it possible for the tool to be used for a variety of purposes.

Now, it is even being used in the fight against corruption.

In a recent workshop, anti-graft body Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) held a training session for individuals from various organisations on using Google Earth to monitor forested areas.

Participants were taught how to navigate their way around satellite imagery, create boundaries and mark areas -- all in an attempt to monitor and assess forest degradation in the country.

The plan was for these organisations to then transfer the skills and knowledge to the communities they engage with -- the "ultimate users" of the technology, says TI-M secretary-general Josie Fernandez.

The programme, she adds, allows citizens and groups such as residents associations to follow closely and spot changes in the forested landscape near where they live.

"The training was done in a format as user-friendly as possible, so that communities do not fear to use it."

The one-day training was part of the forest watch project under Transparency International's five-year Forest Governance Integrity (FGI) programme, in its third year now.

It was funded by the Norwegian Embassy and supported by the Institute of Foresters. Remote sensing experts from Geomatika College International conducted the training.

Dr Manoj Nadkarni says countries in the Asia Pacific region realise that forestry is very important to their development -- forests provide revenue, are homes to indigenous people and a biodiversity hub -- but all these are being lost due to illegal logging.

"The main reason illegal logging takes place is corruption," says Nadkarni, FGI programme manager, Asia Pacific Department.

Unlike the smuggling of gold, money or drugs, illegal logging isn't as difficult to detect.

"Logs are big and have to be taken on lorries and ships. So you can't have illegal logging without the connivance of a lot of other people -- you need the police to support the illegal activities, the Customs inspectors to turn a blind eye and forestry officials to ignore what's going on.

"If you can tackle corruption, illegal logging will drop."

The TI chapters in the region registered their concern with the secretariat, which drew up a programme on forest governance.

Its participants include Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Fiji, Vanuatu, Cambodia and Laos.

During the training, held at the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Academy in Kuala Lumpur, Nadkarni outlined the evils of graft.

Corruption is a waste of resources, distorts the country's investment cycle and deprives it of money, breeds artificial scarcity so that prices can be raised for the benefit of a few corrupt individuals and undermines competition in a free market economy, which otherwise benefits consumers.

"The question is, if corruption is such a dangerous thing, if it destroys the country, what do you do with it?" asks Nadkarni, who's attached to the TI secretariat in Berlin, Germany.

Some areas that the organisation is focused on are foreign bribery, timber laundering and judicial corruption.

"We're not only looking at countries in this region, but also at countries which buy timber.

"Countries like the United States and in Europe have to make sure they check not just whether the wood is legal or illegal, but whether it is legal only because there's corruption involved."

On the most fundamental level, it is important to make corruption difficult by having ways of recognising it and making sure that people do not think graft is a normal way of legalising things.

The pillars of national integrity could be many things -- strong legislation, good judiciary, free media -- but one of the most important is citizen participation, Nadkarni adds.

While Google Earth, which can be downloaded free online, is useful for Malaysians to monitor landscape changes in their areas, it is ambitious to assume that the same can be done in logging concession areas.

This is simply because boundaries of concessions are not published by state forestry departments, so there is no way one can tell whether the logging in a particular patch of forest is legal or illegal.

As such, TI-M calls for the disclosure of licensing information.

In Indonesia, for example, green groups go to the ground with handheld positioning devices using the geographical information system to cross-check on the coordinates of boundaries.

Datuk Baharuddin Ghazali, IRIM vice-president, says boundaries and mapping are a matter of government confidentiality, but it would be beneficial if coordinates of the external boundary of forest reserves can at least be released.

"I think there's nothing wrong in knowing where the external boundaries are.

"The general public can tell from satellite images or maps where the forest boundaries are, and alert the authorities of landscape change or encroachments into reserves."

Victor Soosai, Malaysia's FGI project manager, says citizen-based monitoring programmes should be seen as a positive approach instead of an adversarial one.

"Forestry departments are always understaffed. We want to help them."

Ultimately, for these concerned individuals, utilising such a technology is a step in the right direction -- not so much to prove anything, but as a process of citizen empowerment.

"Programmes like this promote greater transparency and integrity in forest governance, which benefits the nation as a whole.

"Citizens become empowered as whistle-blowers, as protectors and champions in the fight against corruption that undermines our pursuit of forest conservation," says Fernandez.

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