Fighting transnational environmental crime.

AuthorElliott, Lorraine

Transnational environmental crime (TEC) is often not taken seriously within the broader policy and enforcement community. It is one of the fastest growing areas of cross-border criminal enterprise involving high profits and low risk for those involved in timber trafficking, wildlife smuggling, the black market in ozone-depleting substances, and the illegal trade in hazardous and toxic waste. TEC is increasingly characterized by commodity-specific smuggling networks, the intrusion of criminal groups involved in other forms of illegal trade and, in some cases, politically motivated organizations for whom this generates income to support other activities. But unlike other forms of transnational crime, there is no international treaty to prevent, suppress, and punish the kinds of trafficking and smuggling that constitute transnational environmental crime. The global regulatory and enforcement community has therefore developed innovative collaborative mechanisms to meet both the criminal and environmental challenges associated with this increasingly serious form of cross-border crime. Despite their successes, their efforts remain underresourced. This article examines the challenges of TEC and efforts to respond to those challenges in the face of uncertain resources and limited awareness.


At the 11th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in April 2005, speakers identified wildlife smuggling and timber trafficking as an area of evolving organized criminal activity deserving of international attention? Within five years, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) included a chapter on the illegal trade in environmental resources in its 2010 Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment, as well the more familiar Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) challenges of drugs, arms, and people smuggling? In March 2012, INTERPOL convened its first ever meeting of International Chiefs of Environmental Compliance and Enforcement. Delegates at the meeting confirmed their concerns about "the scale of environmental crime and the connection with organized transnational crime, including ... issues of smuggling, corruption, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, and murder." (3) Two months later, in May 2012, the U. S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held hearings on the national and global security implications of elephant poaching in Africa. Committee Chairman John Kerry reminded those present that elephant poaching is a "multi-million dollar criminal enterprise ... interwoven [with] some of Central and East Africa's most brutal conflicts." (4)

Something is clearly going on. Transnational environmental crime is reputed to be one of the fastest growing areas of criminal activity globally, worth billions of dollars in profit to criminal groups around the world. Estimates range from $31 billion to $40 billion a year or more. (5) Data from just a small selection of recent seizures and enforcement activity confirms the size and global reach of the illegal environmental trade. In November and December 2011, authorities in Guatemala uncovered three shipping containers ready for export, containing a total of almost 180 cubic meters of rosewood. (6) Between July 2010 and August 2012, customs and enforcement personnel working across Europe and Central Asia intercepted more than 3,000 refrigerant cylinders containing over 60 metric tons of illegally traded ozone-depleting substances (ODS). (7) In the first months of 2012, enforcement officers in Colombia rescued more than 46,000 animals, birds, and reptiles destined for the illegal international market. (8) In June 2012, customs officials in Sri Lanka seized 1.5 tons of ivory in the port of Colombo. The 359 tusks, which were determined to have come from Uganda, had been shipped out of Africa through Kenya and were en route to buyers in Dubai. (9) INTERPOL's Operation Cage, conducted across thirty-two countries in July 2012, resulted in the seizure of more than 8,700 birds and animals, including reptiles, mammals and insects, and the arrest of nearly 4,000 people. (10)

As the Environmental Investigation Agency puts it, environmental crime is "serious, transnational and organized." (11) Crimes associated with illegal extraction, harvest, and waste are serious due to the environmental consequences, the ways in which these crimes undermine the rule of law and good governance--at local, national, and global levels--and the links with violence, corruption, and a range of cross-over crimes such as money laundering. Environmental crimes have become increasingly transnational, as those involved take advantage of a globalizing economy characterized by free trade, increases in the frequency and volume of commodity shipments, fewer border controls (such as those that apply in the European Union, the Schengen Area, the Central America-4 Border Control area, or in free trade zones of the kind established in Latin America, Southeast Asia, China, and parts of Africa), and the opportunity to launder profits into legitimate enterprise through financial and banking systems that have a global reach. This area of criminal activity is sufficiently systematic and organized such that it now merits consideration alongside other forms of transnational organized crime.


TEC involves the movement across borders of species, resources, and pollutants in contravention of domestic law or in violation of prohibition or regulation regimes established by multilateral environmental agreements. It includes the trafficking of illegally-logged timber; smuggling of endangered, threatened, and protected species; the black market in ODS and other prohibited or regulated chemicals; and the transboundary dumping of toxic and hazardous waste including electronic waste (e-waste). INTERPOL now formally recognizes the illegal exploitation of marine living resources, often referred to simply as "fisheries crime," as part of this broader suite of criminal enterprise. These particular forms of organized illegal trade fit the definition of transnational crime in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. These crimes are either committed in more than one state or are committed in one state but with a substantial part of the preparation, planning, direction, or control taking place in another state. (12) In effect, the products, the perpetrators, and often the profits move across borders with the knowing intention of obtaining illegal gain.

The environmental consequences of TEC are well understood. Wildlife trafficking presents a serious threat to species and biodiversity. The demand for skins and traditional medicine pharmacopeia, for example, has contributed to the reduction in the number of tigers to such an extent that fewer than 3,200 are now estimated to exist in the wild. (13) The illegal pet trade has brought species such as the Lear's Macaw, native to Brazil, to the brink of extinction. Illegal logging and the trade in stolen timber is a major driver of deforestation, habitat destruction, and species endangerment. The continued use of illegally produced or traded ODS is an obvious factor in continued ozone depletion and its consequences which include an epidemiologically significant increase in skin cancers, cataracts, suppression of immune systems in humans and animals, and reduced productivity in plants and phytoplankton. The kinds of waste products that are traded or dumped illegally, often in developing countries, can contribute to land and water contamination, health hazards due to toxic exposure, and a long-term adverse impact on food chains.

In both its domestic and transnational forms, environmental crime complicates efforts at sustainable development, denies income to governments, compromises the security of local communities, and fosters corruption. Each year, people from local communities and national agencies involved in protecting wildlife, preventing poaching, fighting against illegal logging and timber trafficking, or defending against the hazards of illegal waste and chemical trade are the victims of violence and murder.

Each of these illegal market sectors reflects patterns of demand and supply. In the illegal wildlife trade, supply follows demand. Private collectors and zoos in developed and developing countries want rare and unusual species.14 Consumer preferences create niche markets for components of protected plants and animals that are used in traditional Asian and African medicines, in exotic foods such as bushmeat and reef fish, and in fashion items that use ivory, tortoise shell, or shatoosh (the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope, the chiru, which has to be killed for the wool to be collected). The Asia Pacific region is thought to account for up to three-quarters of the illegal wildlife trade either as source or destination. But South America has also become a so-called wildlife crime hot spot, with up to 15 percent of the illegal trade now estimated to be sourced in Brazil alone. (15) Developed countries are not immune--countries such as Australia and New Zealand, for example, are prime targets for poachers and smugglers seeking wild birds, reptiles, and native insects for sale to collectors in the international marketplace. Wild birds of prey are smuggled from the United Kingdom to the falconry market in the Middle East. Poachers have targeted North American bears for the Asian medicine trade. The trade in illegally logged timber, which one observer describes as being of "industrial scale," is driven by a global demand for cheap timber, by specific market demand for high-value species (such as rosewood and mahogany), and by corporate efforts to generate quick profits by avoiding environmental oversight and government fees and taxes. (16)

The black market in ODS is, somewhat ironically, a direct but unintended demand-driven consequence of international efforts to protect the ozone layer through...

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