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Explainer: What Is Environmental Crime?

CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Benjamin Kurylo Global Commons Mar 25th 202410 mins
Explainer: What Is Environmental Crime?

Environmental crime, often sidelined and underestimated, is among the world’s most damaging, rapidly growing, and lucrative crimes. Understanding its complex nature, causes, and large-scale impacts is critical to uncovering the gaps that allow it to thrive and developing effective strategies to combat this pressing issue.

The ‘Low Risk, High Reward’ Nature of Environmental Crimes

Although they pose a severe threat to the planet and society, environmental crimes are often perceived as a low priority by the international enforcement community and largely lack a comprehensive response from governments. However, they are one of the world’s most damaging, rapidly expanding, and profitable crimes, and their consequences are global. As stated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), environmental crime affects all countries indiscriminately, impacting biodiversity, national security, and socio-economic development.

The very definition of environmental crime is also not universally accepted, as it appears to be “victimless,” encompassing a wide range of offences, operating illicitly and clandestinely, and being difficult to identify. However, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL have recognized environmental crime as “a collective term to describe illegal activities harming the environment and aimed at benefiting individuals or groups or companies from the exploitation of, damage to, trade or theft of natural resources, including, but not limited to serious crimes and transnational organized crime.” These illegal activities mainly include wildlife crimes, pollution crimes, prohibited chemicals trade, illegal fishing, illegal logging, and illegal mining.

Despite ( or because of) not receiving adequate attention, environmental crime is growing at an annual rate of 5-7%, faster than the global economy, overtaking human trafficking as the third-largest criminal sector in the world after drug trafficking and counterfeiting. With up to US$281 billion in illicit gains annually, environmental crime is estimated to be one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in terms of profits. Indeed, natural resources, wildlife, and ecosystems can be easily exploited, mined, and poached at minimal cost. This profitability and the challenges associated with detecting and prosecuting its perpetrators make environmental crime attractive for organized criminal groups engaged in smuggling, terrorism, money laundering, and corruption.

The “low risk, high reward” nature of environmental crime has been fueled by a lack of dialogue, action, and consistency in public policy at national and international levels, along with the dominant perception of the issue by legal authorities as a conservation problem rather than a serious criminal activity. In countries primarily affected by environmental crime, combat efforts are severely under-resourced relative to the scale and impacts of the problem. At the international level, financial losses resulting from environmental crime are 10,000 times greater than the sums spent by international agencies to tackle it. Law enforcement agencies primarily focus on drugs, arms, and human trafficking, which creates a permissive climate for organized crime networks to expand their involvement in environmental crime.

Causes, Drivers, and Impacts of Environmental Crimes

Environmental crimes have a wide range of mutually reinforcing underlying causes, which are at the heart of the permissive environment that allows low risks and high profits, leading to pervasive and rampant criminality. 

According to the UNODC, causes include poor governance, widespread corruption, insufficient funding, lack of prosecution, limited international coordination, and ineffective regulatory frameworks. Mainly institutional in nature, these causes highlight the structural deficiencies of national and international governance systems that enable and sustain environmental crimes.

The expansion and perpetuation of environmental crimes are also driven by poverty and demand. Criminal groups frequently exploit impoverished communities by recruiting low-level criminals, smugglers, and couriers. Lack of livelihoods pushes people to engage in environmental crimes, which generate greater immediate profits than legal alternatives. These crimes affect the revenue streams of governments and local communities, fueling a cycle of poverty and impelling more people to commit environmental crimes. In addition, the large and growing demand for wildlife products, exotic species and foods, timber, pulp, cheap illegal chemicals, gold and minerals, and essential natural resources provides the organized criminal group with a steady and reliable source of income. Moreover, the scarcer illegal wildlife products are, the higher the value attached to them by buyers, contributing to the lucrative nature of environmental crime activities. In these circumstances, effective attempts to curb the illicit trade in environmental crime products often contribute to higher prices, incentivizing more offenders to commit these crimes.

The various illegal activities constituting environmental crime have serious implications, putting resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, species extinction, human health, loss of revenues, livelihoods, and climate stability at risk. Beyond the harmful effects on the environment and ecosystems, these crimes profoundly affect human society. They disrupt peace by benefiting armed groups and fueling armed conflicts, harm security by destabilizing countries, and hinder development by exacerbating poverty and inequality.

Environmental crimes generate a ripple effect in the costs inflicted on communities and countries. Not only do they harm the complex balance of the planet’s plant, animal, and micro-organism communities forming a cohesive unit but also hinder socio-economic development. They also jeopardize ecosystem services, in other words, ecosystems’ benefits and contributions to human quality of life and well-being. 

Preserving this natural capital through the protection of nature and the sustainable use of resources is essential to support development opportunities for current and future generations. Illegal deforestation, fishing, trade in endangered wildlife, depletion of natural resources, and dumping of hazardous waste all lead to a loss of ecosystem services such as climate regulation, food security, ecosystem resilience, sustainable livelihoods, and income streams. 

The World Bank estimates that the combined cost of illegal fishing, logging, and wildlife trade worldwide is between US$1-2 trillion per year, with more than 90% of economic losses resulting from the impact of environmental crime on ecosystem values.

The Fight Against Environmental Crime

Combating environmental crime is not an unachievable task. 

At the national level, Brazil has demonstrated how comprehensive regulatory frameworks and prompt law enforcement actions empower authorities to combat environmental crime effectively. In 2004, the country implemented the Plan to Protect and Combat Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAM), supported by a broad enforcement operation to curb illegal deforestation by targeting the entire criminal chain and its networks. This resulted in fines worth $3.9 billion, 700 arrests, the seizure of one million cubic meters of tropical timber, the confiscation of 11,000 properties, equipment, and assets, and an embargo on nearly a million hectares of land.

amazon deforestation animal agriculture
17% of Amazon forests have been wholly lost, and an additional 17% are degraded.

Coordinated implementation has been accompanied by holistic initiatives, such as the REDD mechanism and other programs, to promote indigenous peoples’ participation, stakeholder engagement, and alternative livelihoods. As a result, Brazil reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 76% in just five years, demonstrating the potential application of similar measures and actions by other countries to combat environmental crime.

You might also like: Lula Orders Crackdown on Illegal Mining in Brazil’s Yanomami Territory

Other countries have also implemented substantial conservation measures. 

China, for example, has made significant environmental, police, and military strides to prevent the eradication of the Tibetan antelope, which had lost 90% of its population to poaching for Shahtoosh wool in the 1990s-2000s. It was combined with the creation of some of the largest protected areas in the world, which resulted in a slow population recovery. Nepal has also strengthened the fight against poaching and wildlife crime. Between 2014 and 2019, only one rhino was killed by poachers, although poaching increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, with six rhinos poached between 2020 and 2021. Another example is the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Created jointly by Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, it has contributed to the recovery of populations of elephants, wild dogs, lions, and rhinos.

Rhino in the wild
In 2014, Nepal was the first country in the world to achieve zero poaching of its three flagship species: tigers, rhinos and elephants.

At the international level, the Montreal Protocol highlights the importance of global action to combat environmental crimes and mitigate environmental threats. It has significantly curbed the illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The global agreement on the phase-out of ODS has allowed a drastic reduction in the shadow economy of chlorofluorocarbons, responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, effectively closing criminal markets.

Efforts to strengthen intelligence sharing have facilitated more extensive and effective international law enforcement operations, as evidenced by significant achievements in the interception of illegal timber and wildlife products. In 2013, INTERPOL’s Operation Lead led to the seizure of 292,000 cubic meters of timber and wood products worth approximately $40 million in Costa Rica and Venezuela. In East Africa, law enforcement agencies from Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe worked together to carry out Operation Wildcat, which resulted in 660 arrests and the seizure of 240 kg of elephant ivory.

Global Efforts and Response to Combat Environmental Crimes

A coherent policy response to environmental crime must catch up to this rapidly worsening problem. The effects of expanding global connections and trade over the past 20 years have outpaced the level of global response to tackle the issue of environmental crime. 

This inadequacy has prompted calls for mechanisms to identify, investigate, and prosecute organized crime actors. Efforts are underway to introduce a fourth protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). This new international legal instrument would be the first to create specific obligations for state parties regarding environmental crimes. Similarly, adding “ecocide” as a fifth core crime in the Rome Statute has been proposed to broaden the scope of international criminal law and allow the prosecution of environmental crimes at the international level.

More on the topic: Why Ecocide Should be an International Crime

Progress is being made to address gaps in the international legal framework and strengthen enforcement of environmental criminal law. In 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing crimes that affect the environment as falling within the scope of the UNTOC and calling for strengthening international cooperation in this regard. In 2021, the Fourteenth United Nations Crime Congress adopted the Kyoto Declaration, which calls on member states to make comprehensive efforts to prevent and combat crimes that affect the environment. Other initiatives include the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, which brings together five major international organizations – INTERPOL, UNODC, the World Bank, WCO, and CITES – to drive global coordination in the fight against wildlife crime.

The European Union has also taken a major legislative step regarding environmental crime. In February 2024, the European Parliament voted in favour of the new Environmental Crimes Directive (ECD). The ECD is intended to replace the obsolete version of 2008, which presented significant limitations and shortcomings according to the 2020 Commission evaluation. This new text aims to adapt the response to the growth of environmental crime, recognized as one of Europe’s primary organized crime activities. It clarifies the definition and scope of environmental crime, updates the list of criminal offences, harmonizes the types and levels of sanctions, strengthens international investigations and prosecutions, and improves national law enforcement chains. Celebrated as a “victory for the environment” by Greens/EFA MEP Marie Toussaint, the new ECD protects the environment more effectively and ends impunity for environmental crimes in the EU as part of the priorities and objectives of the European Green Deal, the bloc’s climate strategy.

More on the topic: New ‘Ambitious’ EU Legislation to Combat Environmental Crimes Introduces Tougher Penalties for Polluting Companies’ Representatives 

The Way Forward

Combating environmental crime requires recognizing its time-sensitive nature and the need for an immediate, committed, and sustainable global response. The international community must recognize and combat environmental crimes as a severe global threat affecting ecosystems, peace, security, and development. The expansion of environmental crimes and dynamic changes in the international landscape require a whole new scale of coordinated responses and cross-border collaboration.

Rectifying the under-dimensioned resources allocated to combating environmental crimes is imperative to combat their broad scope and profound impacts effectively. A comprehensive and coordinated global effort is at the heart of the strategy to adequately address the different facets of environmental crimes and their implications for development. The holistic approach must address environmental crime’s underlying causes and driving factors through coherent legislation, law enforcement, poverty alleviation, and awareness raising at the international and national levels. 

Combating environmental crime is as self-reinforcing as allowing environmental crime to spread unhindered. Taking proactive measures guarantees governments and communities income from the sustainable use of natural resources, strengthens the rule of law, stabilizes countries, and alleviates the poverty that fuels crime, all of which effectively hamper the proliferation of environmental crime.

At the consumer level, individual actions and behaviours have the power to either disrupt or contribute to the illicit wildlife supply chain. According to INTERPOL, refraining from purchasing products, food, traditional medicines, and souvenirs from exotic wildlife can prevent the exploitation or extinction of species. Staying informed about illegal items and activities, buying from reputable outlets, looking for certification marks, and ensuring products are sustainably sourced are all effective barriers against illegal wildlife trade and environmental crimes. Finally, reporting suspicious products to local police and environmental agencies can provide crucial information to law enforcement in combating environmental crimes.

A comprehensive strategy bringing together national governments and international agencies is essential to tackle the broader threats of environmental crime. Standing united and well-prepared will enable sustainable management, preservation, conservation, and restoration of our ecosystems and the services they provide for our economy, quality of life, and well-being, as well as for the health of our planet.

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity

About the Author

Benjamin Kurylo

Benjamin is an undergraduate student at the Higher School of Economics, where he is pursuing his degree in international relations. Passionate about and committed to environmental sustainability, he researches and writes on pressing environmental issues to raise awareness and contribute to meaningful change.

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