Can we stamp out environmental crime?

In some African countries, the population of elephants has fallen by 90% in just ten years. [USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr]

More lucrative and less risky than many traditional criminal activities, environmental crime is growing largely unchecked. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

“Low risks, high profits” is the mantra of organised environmental criminals. And environmental crime is paying more and more. Estimates vary greatly, but the figures cited by experts are staggering.

“After drugs, human and arms trafficking, this is the fourth most important source of revenue for organised crime,” said André Viau, honorary president of the International Forum on Technology and Security (FITS).

In 2014, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol estimated the value of illegal and environmentally harmful activities at between $70 and $213 billion per year. This includes illegal deforestation, poaching, trafficking of protected species, fishing, mining and dumping. But this is likely to be a conservative estimate.

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Getting around the rules

Demand for natural resources and rare species is consistently high. Tougher environmental rules, in both developed and developing countries, have led a growing number of companies to dump their waste in the hopes of avoiding costly disposal procedures.

“The refusal by the company Trafigura to pay €400,000 to have its waste treated in Amsterdam caused €150 million worth of environmental damage in Ivory Coast,” said Françoise Labrousse, an environmental lawyer.

Other companies are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain rare metals at the best possible prices, for use in mobile phones and wind turbines. The spread of civil wars and conflicts has led to the involvement of guerrilla and terrorist groups in the trafficking of precious wood and stones. After all, the penalties for these activities are less severe than those attached to drugs trafficking or prostitution.

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An unfair fight

The illegal exploitation of natural resources has been left to develop relatively freely, with little or no official intervention. In certain poor African countries, the training, equipment and employment of rangers to fight poaching is carried out entirely by environmental NGOs.

But this is often not a fair fight. “Each year, about 100 guards are killed by poachers, who have become a militarised force,” said Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for France and Francophone Africa.

Penniless Interpol

In rich countries, green crime is not high on the list of security priorities. And the increasing threat of terrorism is not the only reason. “States often balk at the thought of taking on powerful groups of organised criminals,” said Gilles Hennequin, an advisor to France’s interministerial economic intelligence delegate.

Finance ministers generally prefer to invest their money elsewhere. Interpol recently had to interrupt project Eden, its fight against illegal dumping and international waste trafficking, due to a lack of funds.

A grand total of seven Interpol agents are currently assigned to the fight against poaching in Africa.

Adaptable criminals

Organised criminals are often hard to keep track of, because they can be highly adaptable.

“We made the managers of Ebay aware of the fact that a number of traffickers were trading on their platform. They took efficient measures and the number items advertised has fallen dramatically,” Sissler-Bienvenu said. “But these sellers then started offering their products on other, less watchful sites.”

A lost cause

So is this a lost cause? It certainly will be if states and economic actors continue to treat environmental crime with the same negligence as they treat environmental protection. Some, like Jean-Baptiste Carpentier, the French interministerial delegate for economic security, would like companies to take greater responsibility for the products and materials they use.

“Of course it is difficult to trace everything along the supply chain. It is a bit like the fight against corruption. A few years ago, the banks said it was impossible to trace financial flows. But a few billions of euros in fines later, they have learned that it is possible,” he said.

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