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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Environmental crimes - A walk on the wild side
Political will is the biggest obstacle to halting the illegal trade in plant and animal products that hurts society as much as the environment, according to a new report
To many, the expression environmental crime conjures up images of fly-tipping or similar local but small-scale practices; annoying but ultimately not very important. But environmental crime in the sense of illegal trade in wildlife and destruction of the natural world is both a serious global problem and one whose impacts go beyond the environmental concerns to affect wider society.
In its new report 'Environmental Crimes, A Threat to our Future' the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based campaign group, provides well-documented examples of environmental crimes around the world, argues why this matters, and sets out models of enforcement that could be used more widely to tackle the problem.
EIA argues that what it calls international environmental crime can be divided into five categories of offence, recognised by international bodies such as the G8, Interpol, the EU, the UN Environment Programme and the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. These categories are:
1. Illegal trade in wildlife in contravention of the 1973 Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites).
2. Illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances in contravention of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
3. Dumping and illegal transport of various kinds of hazardous waste in contravention of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Other Wastes and their Disposal.
4. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in contravention of controls imposed by various regional fisheries management organisations.
5. Illegal logging and trade in timber in violation of national laws. There are currently no binding international controls on the international timber trade with the exception of an endangered species, which is covered by Cites.
Illegal logging is probably the best-known example of international environmental crime. Despite efforts such as the Forest Stewardship Councils certification process, illegal logging remains a significant problem. The illegal trade costs developing countries as much as $15bn a year in lost revenues and taxes, the EIA estimates.
In Indonesia alone, the government estimates that illegal logging costs the country $4bn a year ' equivalent to about five times the countrys annual health spend. The environmental cost, too, is severe. Indonesia has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, losing up to two million hectares of forest a year ' equivalent to 300 football pitches every hour.
The illegal trade in animal skins and products also has high public awareness, thanks to the profile of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. However, the problem lies not in tourists trying to take home souvenirs made from endangered species. As the EIA reports, the trade in animal skins, particularly in Asia, is a highly organised criminal activity encompassing a range of countries including China, India and Nepal.
EIA also says that despite the 1989 international ban, the trade in ivory and ivory products is still going strong. In June 2002, 532 elephant tusks and more than 40,000 traditional Japanese name seals made from ivory were seized from a ship arriving in Singapore from South Africa en route to Japan. The report alleges that the trade is growing, particularly in south-east Asia, citing increasing seizures of ivory at ports in the region. Three tonnes were seized in Shanghai in August 2003; six tonnes in the Philippines in 2005; almost four tonnes in Hong Kong in May 2006; over five tonnes in Taiwan in July 2006; and 223 tusks seized in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 2007.
Smuggling of ozone-depleting substances is, by contrast, a form of international environmental crime of which few people will be aware. In a rare example of timely and swift international action, trade in CFCs was regulated by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. That agreement, ratified by 189 countries, came only two years after scientists observed a severe thinning in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Would that such swift action were possible on climate change. However, an illegal trade in CFCs began to develop after manufacture of the gases was phased out in Europe and the US in 1995. A flourishing black market now exists, sourced largely, the EIA claims, from Russia and, more recently, China.
Tackling the problem
Perhaps the reports greatest strength lies in its analysis of the government interventions that could work to tackle the problem of environmental crime. Unlike many campaign groups, whose reports on international abuses end in a woolly call for new international legislation, the EIA has focused firmly on what works.
Given the international nature of these criminal activities, the EIA argues that collaboration between different governments is essential in tackling these abuses. The report cites the example of Project Sky-Hole Patching, the first coordinated customs enforcement operation against environmental crime in Asia, launched in 2006.
Designed to tackle smuggling of ozone-depleting substances and of illegal hazardous waste, the project included the customs authorities of 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The operation led to the seizure of more than 100 tonnes of contraband ozone-depleting substances and 1,000 tonnes of illicit waste. The project also raised awareness of the issues in the region and has also led to wider cooperation, for example with the EU.
The EIA argues that internal cooperation within states is also vital ' different agencies of a single government are often badly coordinated. The report cites the US Operation Cool Breeze, designed to cohere activities of various federal agencies in the fight against illegal CFCs. The taskforce was made up of the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, the Inland Revenue Service and customs agents from around the country. By pooling resources and intelligence, the task force was able to compile strong cases against a number of suspects and secure convictions. During the first two years of Operation Cool Breeze 18 convictions of major CFC smugglers were secured.
Specialist intelligence is also important. A series of small seizures of animal parts have been made since 1992, which appeared unrelated. However, the work of Indias specialist Wildlife Crime Control Bureau provided the intelligence to demonstrate that these seizures were part of a complex criminal conspiracy and enabled the network to be pursued and broken up.
The big ask
As the EIA report makes clear, the key weapon in the struggle against international environmental crime is political will. Without the willingness of governments to prioritise and address these issues, the criminals will continue to flourish. In many developing countries this will is undermined by corruption that results in many politicians and officials having a personal interest in the crimes continuing. For developed countries governments, many of these issues do not seem important enough to warrant consistent and concerted action.
This reports importance is twofold. First, it keeps the issues of environmental crime on the radar screen. Second, and equally importantly, it does not simply call for something to be done, but highlights tangible examples of what governments can do to address these important issues.
How to fight environmental crime
Steps governments could take to fight environmental crime, or the illegal trade in wildlife, include:
* upping anti-corruption efforts (corrupt officials allow environmental crime to flourish) and using new technology to remove direct human contact as much as possible from trade in natural resources;
* supporting inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation to develop enforcement capacity of regional units to investigate environmental crime; and
* applying existing criminal laws to environmental criminals, as well as existing environment-specific laws.
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