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Good Governance

Rainforest protection by comptroller generals

by Katja Grunow
Auditing offices can play an important role in environmental protection. In the Amazon Basin, five supreme audit institutions are currently using the instruments at their disposal to save the rainforest and promote sustainable use of resources. The aim is to inform governments and the public in general about the state of their region. They will also report on the effectiveness of government interventions and international nature-protection programmes. [ By Katja Grunow ]

Every year, an area of Amazonian forest the size of Belgium is lost. The drama is taking place in complex feed-back loops. There is a local greenhouse effect, but the deforestation of six million square kilometres also contributes to global warming, because it raises the atmosphere’s carbon concentration. Climate change, in turn, affects the region’s rich biodiversity. Species and subspecies, for instance, are under threat as average temperatures rise and extreme wheather becomes more ­likely. The result is that primary and secondary forests loose some of their resilience. The consequence, obviously, is faster deforestation and even more erosion of biological diversity.

Amazonian biodiversity, moreover, provides livelihoods to some 30 million people. They belong to 420 different ethnic groups with more than 300 languages and dialects. The loss of biodiversity thus not only endangers the global ecosystem; it also puts cultural diversity at risk. In the Amazon region, it is the economically disadvantaged peoples who directly depend on the use of local natural resources.

Alarming state of affairs

The head of Colombia’s supreme audit ­institution, Comptroller General Julio César Turbay Quintero, has assessed the state of the Amazon region as “a cause for concern and alarm”. Preserving the tropical rainforest, according to him, is a task that will only be accomplished through joint efforts that involve all government institutions as well as civil society.

On the initiative of his agency, the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) of five Amazon countries – Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela – are coordinating efforts. They are preparing a report on the state of the Amazon Basin and hope it will prove galvanising. The document is due to be launched in Lima in August. In it, the financial comptrollers will inform the public about the progressive loss of forest area and biodiversity in the Amazon region. The report will recommend measures to stop the trend.

The coordinated efforts of SAIs could contribute to helping the region find a ­sustainable balance between economic growth and the protection of local communities’ livelihoods. In a memorandum of understanding the five SAIs have agreed to use the instruments at their disposal to promote sustainable resource management and environmental protection in the Amazon region. Their cross-border cooperation reflects the international character of the loss of biological and cultural diversity in the region.

The work is coordinated by the Colombian SAI. Colombia’s Comptroller General Turbay, after all, had approached SAIs in neighbouring countries in 2008, sugges­ting to start this innovative conservation initiative at the regional level. From early 2009 on, it has been institutionally ­embedded, under his chairmanship, in OLACEFS. The acronym OLACEFS stands for “Organisation of Latin American and Caribbean Supreme Audit Institutions (Organización Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Entidades Fiscalizadoras Superiores), the regional working group of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI).

InWEnt has supported the SAIs’ rainforest initiative from the outset. Cooperation with OLACEFS and the Colombian SAI has been going on since the 1980s. Today, the five SAIs are making use of InWEnt’s numerous instruments for sharing experience and transferring knowledge, including policy dialogue, expert advice and networking among skilled professionals.

The core competence of audit offices, of course, lies in verifying whether government agencies are making proper use of their funds, and whether they are doing so efficiently. It therefore makes sense for them to check whether governments are meeting goals of protecting biodiversity and sociocultural heritage. The members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (Organización del Tratado de Cooperación Amazónica or OTCA, see box) have committed to environmental protection and ­sustainable resource management. OTCA has more members than the SAI initiative. The SAIs of Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela are now looking into whether and to what extent their governments are living up to their OTCA promises.

Among other things, the SAIs are checking whether local communities are being involved in negotiations as well as what role they play in the implementation of programmes. The auditors also plan to make recommendations on how revenues from the exploitation of natural resources can be distributed more fairly in order to raise local people’s standards of living.

The SAIs’ initiative has already led to some healthy results. Mutual exchange between the partners involved has been boosted, and there is also some convergence in terms of what and how they report. Their missions are taking place simultanously. The foundation has been laid for painting a coherent and detailed picture of the ecological state of the Amazon region.

Exchange with academia as well as ­civil society is also significant. The SAIs’ work ist based on scientific studies as well as community experience. This kind of interaction reflects the government agencies’ increased awareness of the relevance of public participation in all important ­affairs of their nations.

Stimulating competition

Cooperation automatically leads to a comparison of current practices. It thus stimulates creative competition at eye level. In search of innovative, harmonised approaches, the five SAIs are jointly developing new rules and methods for environmental accounting.

Europe is the world region with most ­abundent experience of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Therefore, the SAIs of EU members command a lot of expertise that is valuable to their counterparts in Latin America. At present, two inter-regional cooperations are ongoing, they relate to climate change and forestry management. In this context, SAIs contact with European counterparts is proving meaningful.