The world is being dredged of its natural resources, with much of what we rely on for our livelihoods at risk from a new threat: environmental crime (UNEP-INTERPOL report, 2016).
Environmental crimes are widely recognized as among some of the most profitable forms of transnational criminal activity. Their monetary value was estimated in 2016 at between US$91-259 billion annually, most likely the fourth largest criminal area in the world after drugs, counterfeits and human trafficking. This estimate corresponds to a 26 per cent increase compared to 2014, with rates of such crimes expected to further increase by 5-7 per cent annually.
According to the INTERPOL-UNEP report 2016, illegal activities that involve the environment, biodiversity or natural resources are often lucrative and involve comparatively low risks for criminals. Environmental crimes have previously not been regarded as a priority in some countries, resulting in a lack of appropriate and proportionate governmental response.
A recent study by UN Environment, titled The State of Knowledge of Crimes that have Serious Impacts on the Environment, lists five of the most prevalent environmental crime areas globally:
Wildlife crime: According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), wildlife crime is particularly persistent in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where all kinds of species – mammals, birdlife, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and plants – are affected.
Illegal logging: The International Union of Forest Research Organizations reported in 2016 that illegal logging has affected all continents of the globe and is widespread across all tropical forest regions like China, India, and Vietnam – three major importers of legal and illegal tropical wood products.
Illegal fishing: A 2013 report by the PEW Charitable Trust indicates that illegal fishing occurs worldwide within both exclusive economic zones of countries and in international waters.
Pollution crimes: The illegal dumping and trade of wastes has resulted in a global contamination of air, land, water systems (including water tables and river systems) and threaten local ecosystems, affecting animal and plants in addition to human health.
Waste trafficking originates mainly in developed countries, with the European Union, the United States, Japan and Australia being commonly identified as the main exporters of illegal waste shipment. The main destination continents for illegal waste trafficking are Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, Benin and Senegal) and Asia (China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Vietnam).
The illegal production and consumption of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances also falls under this category. These substances affect animal immune systems, creating vulnerability to infectious diseases and reduced productivity in plants and phytoplankton.
Illegal mining: Illegal mining is prevalent in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, where it is increasingly becoming an issue of major public concern. It has severe environmental impacts, most notably mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining, destruction of natural flora and fauna, pollution, landscape degradation and radiation hazards.
The major gaps
The UN Environment study identified several major gaps in the response to environmental crime. Lack of data, knowledge and awareness, lack and limited use of legislation, lack of institutional will and governance, lack of capacity in the enforcement chain, lack of national and international cooperation and information sharing among authorities, and lack of engagement with private actors and local communities were among those listed.
In order to close those gaps, the international community needs to reintroduce programmes of environmental crime, initiate concerted action and information sharing, recognize and address environmental crimes as a serious threat to peace and sustainable development, and strengthen the environmental rule of law at all levels.
UN Environment is therefore helping countries establish strong legal frameworks on environmental crime by developing enforcement guidance to help national authorities comply with environmental laws.
It also builds the capacities of all actors involved in environmental enforcement such as police, prosecutors and customs. UN Environment recently partnered with the Africa Prosecutors Association to create training manuals and curricula on environmental crime prosecution, and help countries integrate environmental crime education in the training curricula of police and prosecutors, in order to enhance their capacity to investigate and prosecute cases. This type of training has already been conducted in Uganda.
For more information, please contact Allan Meso