Environmental crime nets $213B, threatens global security, U.N. says

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
June 25, 2014 — Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
“The Environmental Crime Crisis” report says high profits and the low probability of being caught are fueling environmental crime.

(CNN) — Not enough is being done to combat environmental crime, a threat to global security worth a staggering $213 billion each year, according to a new report from the United Nations and Interpol.

Money made through illegal logging, poaching, fisheries, mining and the dumping of toxic waste is being used to fund militia, and terrorist and criminal groups, said the report released Tuesday, “The Environmental Crime Crisis.”

“Transnational criminal organizations are making immense profits by exploiting our natural resources to fuel their illicit activities,” said Interpol’s executive director of police services, Jean-Michel Louboutin.

He called for a “dedicated and concerted international effort… to effectively combat this threat to global security.”

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How big is the market?

To give an idea of the scale of the illegal market, the figure of $213 billion is about 60% more than the total global Overseas Development Assistance of around $135 billion each year.

Illegal logging and forest crime earns traders up to $100 billion dollars each year — up to 30% of the total global timber trade.

And the market for Illegal trade of flora and fauna is worth up to $23 billion, including live and dead specimens and associated products, many destined for Asia.

“Beyond immediate environmental impacts, the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues just to fill the pockets of criminals,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

He said that while the report showed there was growing awareness of environmental crime, “the responses to date in terms of impact have not been commensurate with the scale and growth of the threat to wildlife and the environment.”

Criminals attracted to trade

The report said criminals “from other sectors” were being attracted to environmental crime because of “a combination of high profits and low probability of getting caught and convicted.

“This applies especially with respect to transnational activities, where enforcement has been virtually non-existent until now.”

The report also said the criminals’ involvement in other activities including drugs, trafficking, violence, murder and corruption “undermined human and state security.”

The networks involved in environmental crime were also becoming more adept at extracting resources and laundering the products and proceeds of the trade, the report said.

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The black market in charcoal

It’s estimated the illegal charcoal trade in East, Central and West Africa generates up to $9 billion in net profit each year. That’s almost three times the street value of illegal drugs in the region.

That number is expected to swell as demand for charcoal rises over the next 30 years, with a predicted surge in the population of sub-Saharan Africa by one billion people by 2050, the report said.

And it’s not just the sale of charcoal, but the illegal taxes imposed by militias and other groups on the transportation of the illegal cargo, commonly up to 30% of its value.

One group in East Africa was making most of its income from imposing informal taxes at roadblock checkpoints and ports, the report said. In one roadblock case, they were found to be making $18 million each year from charcoal-related traffic in Somalia’s Badhadhe District — just some of their $56 million in earnings that year.

How do they do it?

In the case of illegal forestry trade, it was found that as much as 90% of the wood from some tropical countries was illegally logged or came from illegal sources.

In some cases, traders were able to bypass controls by using shell companies, as well as plantation and agricultural front companies, to supply pulp for the paper industry, the report said.

It added that, in the past, most attention had been paid to roundwood, sawnwood or furniture products entering the European Union and United States. In fact, investigators found that up to 86% of suspected illegal tropical wood was entering those regions in the form of paper, pulp or wood chips.

Ivory trade

Transnational criminal organizations are making immense profits by exploiting our natural resources to fuel their illicit activities.
Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol

While forest crime “dwarfs” the illegal trade in flora and fauna, the report warned about the threat to a range of wildlife including gorillas, tigers, reptiles and sturgeon, which is sought for black caviar.

One of the most lucrative forms of wildlife crime is the poaching of elephants and rhinos for their tusks, markets worth up to $188 million and $192 million, respectively, each year.

Ivory is suspected to be the primary source of income for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia operating in the border triangle of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Ivory is also funding horse gangs operating between Sudan, Chad and Niger, the report said.

What can be done?

The report issued twelve recommendations, including calls for a coordinated approach to crime fighting, tighter laws, certification schemes and awareness campaigns to target the end market.

Some success had been achieved in recent years, including a sharp reduction in deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, down 78% to its lowest level in 2012 since monitoring began in the late 1980s.

Ivory has been seized and arrests made as authorities crack down on poaching, and train new rangers to step up the fight.

“It is imperative that 2014 becomes a year of concrete and decisive action,” UNEP’s Steiner said.


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