Value of eco crimes soars by 26% with devastating impacts on natural world

Environmental crime is now the world’s fourth biggest crime and is a growing threat to security and natural resources, say UN and Interpol
Arthur Neslen The Guardian 3 Jun 16;

The value of the black market industry behind crimes such as ivory smuggling, illegal logging and toxic waste dumping has jumped by 26% since 2014 to between $91bn (£62bn) and $258bn, according to an assessment by the UN and Interpol.

Environmental crime is now the world’s fourth largest illicit enterprise after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking and has outstripped the illegal trade in small arms.

The impact on the natural world has been devastating in some cases. More than a quarter of the world’s elephant population have been killed for their tusks in the last decade alone, according to the joint report from the UN’s environment programme (Unep) and Interpol. Efforts to stem the global crime wave have been thwarted by weak laws, ill-prepared security forces, corruption and chronic underfunding.

The report argues that new laws are needed as well as sanctions at national and international levels, the disruption of overseas tax havens, and increased crime-fighting funds.

Interpol’s secretary general, Jürgen Stock, said: “Environmental crime is growing at an alarming pace. The complexity of this type of criminality requires a multi-sector response underpinned by collaboration across borders.”

Unep’s director, Achim Steiner, said: “The vast sums of money generated from these crimes keep sophisticated international criminal gangs in business, and fuel insecurity around the world. The world needs to come together now to take strong national and international action to bring environmental crime to an end.”

The report’s $91bn to $258bn figure is an estimate of the value of crime this year. Prior to the estimated 26% spike since 2014, there had been a 5-7% increase every year since 2006 in the value of felonies including wildlife poaching, smuggling, illegal logging, minerals theft and toxic waste dumping, the study says. As a result, the value of the black-market industry is now increasing at two to three times the rate of the global economy.

‘Environmental crime’ is a collective term to describe illegal activities harming the environment that involve illegal damage to, trade or theft of natural resources.

International agencies currently spend just $20-$30m annually on tackling the crime wave, a sum dwarfed by the revenues of organised crime networks, which often overlap with drug traffickers, terror groups and militias in war-torn states.

In Tanzania, the market price for the 3,000 elephants killed each year is five times higher than the national budget of the country’s wildlife protection service.

Interpol is trying to encourage better coordination and intelligence sharing between the world’s national crime agencies. But a greater focus is needed on long-term investigations that can take down crime kingpins, as well as low-level poachers and smugglers, officers say.

The agency’s approach to environmental crime has evolved towards more controlled operations. These can involve the use of tracking devices on smuggled cargo, satellite surveillance of major shipping routes and analysis of commodity chain data to verify how illegally sourced products reach the market.

The high-profit, low-risk nature of environmental crime is matched by the low funds and uncertain priorities given to fighting it by many decision-takers.

“It is a spiralling problem,” said Davyth Stewart an Interpol criminal intelligence officer. “Law enforcement is over-stretched. The profits made from these crimes are up to 10,000 times higher than the investments to combat them. There’s a very similar disparity between the profits made by organised crime gangs and the resources available to law enforcement and prosecutors.”

More investment, support and capacity building was needed to help officers who were increasingly being met by armed and violent offenders, he added.

Crimes with a lesser financial value but more immediate impact, such as firearms trafficking, routinely benefit from a greater security focus when environmental crime can have consequences just as profound, even if they are felt further down the line.

The destruction of ecosystems can spark violence and unrest as well as social conflicts, mass migrations and the disruption of human habitats and food chains.

Ibrahim Thiaw, Unep’s deputy director said: “Too often, criminals target poor communities that simply can’t afford to feed their families and bring them into the criminal chain. We need to snap this and create programmes that help people earn a living by protecting, conserving and sustaining the environment through either ecotourism or agriculture.”

Unep has recruited celebrities including Gisele Bündchen, Yaya Touré and Neymar Jr to promote a Wild for Life campaign which aims to raise consciousness about the issue and mobilise public support.

In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Bundchen writes: “Environmental awareness is growing all over the world. But so is wildlife crime, and the struggle between those forces seeking to preserve Earth’s rich biodiversity and those trying to turn it into illicit profits is just getting started.”

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