29 Aug 2019 Story Environmental rights and governance

Environmental authorities and customs join forces against environmental crime

International illegal trade in environmentally sensitive commodities such as ozone depleting substances, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, endangered species and living modified organisms poses a serious threat to the environment and human health.

The illegal trade in these substances results in revenue loss for governments to the tune of millions of United States dollars. But even more concerning is their impact on human health. Ozone depleting substances increase exposure to UV radiation causing skin cancer and eye cataracts. The illegal trade in these substances is undermining the success and reputation of the Montreal Protocol which is expected to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century and up to 2 million cases of skin cancer by 2030.

In recognition of the efforts of customs and enforcement officers to combat the illegal trade in environmentally sensitive commodities, the Montreal Protocol Award was created by the UN Environment Programme’s OzonAction, the Ozone Secretariat and the World Customs Organization.

In Asunción, Paraguay, government officers and authorities of Argentina, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Paraguay received the medals and certificates of the global Montreal Protocol award.


Customs plays a crucial role in fighting illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances and ensuring effective customs training on environmentally sensitive commodities as well as of sharing information between importing and exporting countries.

Globally, 24 countries reported seizures: Argentina, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Georgia, Greece, Honduras, Iran, Jordan, Mongolia, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Poland, Rwanda, Spain, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

A total of 255,726 kg of chemicals was seized, stocked in 19,992 cans, cylinders or containers, and 27,944 pieces of equipment and compressors were confiscated. Despite these impressive figures, only 24 countries, or 12 per cent of 196 countries, reported seizures. And assuming that only few per cent of traded goods are inspected, often less than 3 per cent, the magnitude of illegal trade might be significantly higher.

In Latin America, a total of 9,412 cylinders and 27,024 pieces of equipment were seized. In some cases, the issue of disposal of the seized goods (re-export, destruction or auctioning) is still being decided.


Michelle Corrales from Costa Rica’s National Ozone Unit and Shilveth Fernández Cantón from Green Customs of Costa Rica said: “The recognition received by Costa Rica demonstrates a precedent of how important it is to invest in training and awareness in customs officials, as well as how useful it is to coordinate between customs and environmental institutions to detect illegal trade and sanction those responsible." The Costa Rica National Customs Service seized 412 cylinders of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC-22 or R-22) in 2014. Due to effective post-control measures, it managed to identify past illegal traffic and confiscate these goods.

Edgar Zuñiga from the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Environment of Honduras said, “This global recognition has very positive impact as it shows the importance of inter-institutional coordination between environmental, private and legal institutions as well as customs. We have conducted capacity-building activities for 16 years and it has now been globally recognized. When we will go home, we will organize a press conference and formally inform and congratulate all involved sectors.”

The Secretariat of Natural Resources and Environment of Honduras and the Executive Directorate of Revenue Customs Office of Puerto Cortes were awarded for nine different seizures of illegal trade between 2015-2018 of used milk tanks and air-conditioners containing HCFC-22, which is prohibited by national law. The confiscated equipment was retrofitted to alternative refrigerants and donated to public institutions.

Juan Carlos Amarilla Rojas and the General Directorate of Customs of Paraguay were awarded for three seizures that included 1,150 cylinders of mainly HCFC-22 in 2010, and 27,000 split air-conditioning units that use HCFC-22 gas, in 2015. Amarilla Rojas said that prevention of illegal trade has both environmental and health benefits. “If illegal products are released into the atmosphere, they could also have other dangerous effects. Moreover, illegal substances can also affect the health of people directly or indirectly when handling these products. The importance of the international award received is personal satisfaction in my 40-years customs career and leaves a legacy to the institution I belong to.”


Moreover, the Ozone Programme Office of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the Customs Service of the Ministry of Finance of Argentina received an award for the seizure in 2009 of 1,150 cylinders of HCFC-22 mis-labeled as HFC-134a. The case was prosecuted and heavily fined, and the next step is the final disposal of the seized refrigerants.

The Ozone National Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the General Directorate of Customs of the Dominican Republic were awarded for the seizure of 6,700 cylinders of CFC-12 mislabeled as HFC-134a in 2017. The company was charged a fine and the cylinders are to be returned to the country of origin.

In the presentation of the medals and certificates to the Latin American awardees, the Regional Director and Regional Representative of UNEP, Leo Heileman said, “The United Nations Environment Programme congratulates the award winners for their excellent work to protect the environment and respect the national obligations under the Montreal Protocol, but also encourages all Latin American countries to establish strong and enforceable laws against environmental crime.”