Environmental crime – worth between $70b and $213b annually according to UNEP estimates – is one of the great challenges of our age. To tackle the issues which are driving these illegal trades we must look towards developmental solutions rather than criminal enforcement. In addition, there is also the need for a national revaluation of environmental practices.
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By Sean Mowbray
Environmental crime is an understated organised criminal activity which is not only placing human lives at risk but is also responsible for the wholesale destruction of the environment and the Earth’s fragile ecosystems. It is arguably one of the most dangerous crimes of our time as its effects can be so wide-ranging that they are more harmful than drug trafficking, an illegal trade which receives far more international attention.
The UNEP estimates that environmental crime – including wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, toxic waste dumping, illegal fishing and illegal mining – is worth between $70b and $213b annually. This figure does not include the many non-monetary costs which are potentially far higher with rampant deforestation, poisoning of water tables, natural habitat loss, social upheaval, ecological decline, extinctions, political unrest and more all being correlated to the effects of environmental crime. It is of the utmost importance that such crime is given the attention which it deserves. To do this we may all have to reconsider our actions as like all other illicit trades it is driven by demand.
Politically the impact of environmental crime is high. There have long been links between civil unrest, terrorism, separatist groups and environmental crime. For one example the illegal charcoal industry in Africa has been instrumental in providing funding for the militant group Al-Shabaab. This has involved the deforestation of vast swathes of forest coverage, which are burned to finance the purchase of weapons. According to Mongabay, between 2011 and 2013, an area of around 5,000 square kilometres produced enough charcoal to earn as much as 10 million euros for the group when sold.
Likewise wildlife trafficking has been linked to militant groups who are engaging in the ivory trade to fund their own activities. A lack of enforcement around trafficking of wildlife is pervasive throughout the globe, particularly in Africa where many countries have struggled to cope with poaching as it thrives in areas afflicted by political strife. In a cycle of instability the poaching of wildlife allows militia groups to fund their conflicts which can further destabilise an area or region, thus allowing further damaging environmental activity to continue unchecked. It is for this reason that elephant poaching rates have been higher in politically unstable countries and regions affected by militancy. Kenya, South Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo all suffer poaching on a massive scale due to instability in either their own or neighbouring countries whereas politically stable countries such as Namibia and South Africa have been able to maintain their population’s security.
As well as pushing species towards extinction environmental crime is also driving our Earth to the very brink. At the forefront of this is deforestation. It is perhaps one of the most dangerous threats faced by the human population which we are also directly causing. The loss of forest cover is contributing heavily to climate change and by effectively whittling away at the capacity of our Earth’s lungs we are threatening the very survival of the ecosystems which we depend on to live. Driving a not insignificant portion of deforestation is the pursuit of one of the most coveted minerals in the history of the Earth. Gold.
The pursuit of this precious mineral has historically driven human beings to great extremes. In the 16th and 17th centuries tales of El Dorado flourished amongst the Spanish Conquistadors leading them deep in to the Amazon chasing the glittering city of legend. Today, that same pursuit is still ongoing although it is much less glamorous in the telling. Much of the mining carried out in our current century is done so illegally and with devastating consequences. An investigation by The Economist found that 97% of gold removed from the Madre de Dios region of Peru was done so illegally, while in Colombia nine out of ten gold mines were found to be operating without an adequate license. A separate study has correlated high gold prices to the loss of forest cover. Between 2001 and 2013, it is said, around 16,830 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest were removed, while gold prices increased five times in the same period. Like any other commodity the market is driven by consumption patterns and demand. Although not ranking as high as other destructive practices in its scale, illegal mining is potentially far more damaging to ecosystems as chemicals such as mercury used in the mining process linger and inhibit the regrowth of forest, kill wildlife and poison communities. This destruction is being motivated by an insatiable human desire for gold to prove status, and even love.
A second driver of deforestation, and one of the most lucrative environmental crimes, is illegal logging. It is thought that the illegal trade is worth between $30–100b annually. It is prevalent across the globe and has been increasing in recent years. Trees are illegally cut down in their thousands and laundered seamlessly into the legal market. To further complicate matters regulation is poor to non-existent in developing countries. For instance in Myanmar, during the period 2000-2013, an estimated 72% of timber exports were estimated to be illegal. While Papa New Guinea has been equally afflicted with 70% of its current exports also illegal. In Peru a study released in 2014 found that around 70% of legal concessions at the time were being investigated, or had had their permits cancelled, due to connections to illegal logging practices. The legal trade was also found to be ‘enabling an illegal logging crisis in the Peruvian Amazon’ by being complicit in the laundering of ‘dirty’ timber. It is an issue which is pervasive throughout the logging industry and the leaching of illegally sourced wood into the legal market has muddied the waters to a great extent. It is in many ways impossible to tell what level of destruction was caused to bring exotic wooden furniture to be sold in stores. Transparency is weak to non-existent for much of this industry.
We are facing unsustainable pressure upon our natural environment. Plundering nature for its wealth is nothing new, but it is arguable that there has never been a time when such vast quantities of timber, wildlife and minerals have been removed for human usage as now. Environmental crime is heightened by systemic underfunding, corruption and a lack of understanding of its seriousness. It is not an exaggeration to say that in many places environmental crime is considered less seriously than the theft of say, a mobile phone or a car. It is simply not considered a crime worth reporting or cracking down on. For wildlife trafficking this is changing. Global interest has been awoken by the plight of large species such as rhinos and elephants. However, the focus on this lucrative yet small section of the wildlife trade neglects the larger and more destructive trade in smaller species which is responsible for the emptying of ecosystems everywhere.
The environment is under siege. And we are the besiegers. As a species we are destroying the planet which sustains us. In turn this appetite for destruction is fuelling divisions amongst ourselves by funding political organisations and terrorist cells. Environmental crime is one of the great challenges of our age as it is fundamentally linked to our own survival. To tackle the issues which are driving these illegal trades we must look towards developmental solutions, as it is through this sector, rather than criminal enforcement, that they may be fought. There is also the need for a national revaluation of environmental practices. This is something which we can all engage in, as what is needed is a fundamental rethink of our place in nature. Without demand for products, there would be no environmental crime, just as if there was no demand for cocaine there would be no cocaine trade. Our desire for cheap gold rings and affordable mahogany tables are driving the destruction of the rainforest. Just as China is complicit in the emptying of the African Savannahs, we in the West are complicit in the destruction of the rainforests in South America. Are we strangers to nature or a part of it? When we begin to answer this question maybe some change will occur. Until then we will continue to walk hand in hand down the path of destruction at the end of which we may find we are without wildlife in the wild, without beautiful rainforests cleansing our air and as a species more divided and detached from nature than ever.
Sean Mowbray is a freelance writer and blogger. A graduate of History and International Relations from the University of Dundee his interests lie in organised crime, particularly of an environmental nature.