Environmental Crime

By on 17/07/2014 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Illegal logging - consequences include loss of tax income and increase in terrorism

Environmental crime – everything from illegal logging to the slaughter of endangered species – is globally worth up to $213 billion a year. The immense profits then help fuel other types of crime, everything from financial cybercrime to terrorism.

The illegal logging and forest criminal activity alone is estimated to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion a year. That’s between 10 and 30% of the world’s entire annual timber trade.

The figures are drawn from combined estimates from a range of organisations: The OECD, Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the United Nations Environment Programme. They are contained in the report Illegal Trade In Environmentally Sensitive Goods.

The report lays out the primary range of crimes: illegal trade in wildlife; illegal logging and timber trade; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; illegal trade in controlled chemicals; and illegal disposal of hazardous waste.

The Losses From Logging

If we take just one aspect of that list, illegal logging and timber trade, then we can see that the implications are huge for every aspect of a nation’s administration. This goes far beyond simply trying to catch people cutting down trees.

Loss of government revenue: in Indonesia in 2003 this was valued at $3.7 billion. Globally illegal logging caused a $10 billion loss of market value. This in turn depressed global timber prices by 7-16%, wiping $460 million off the value of US exports alone.

Other consequences following from this illegal logging include lower incomes for forest owners and rural communities which can threaten their way of life. In Honduras, illegal mahogany felling jeopardises the viability of community forests.

The increased and unplanned deforestation causes increases in carbon emissions as the forests are less able to function as carbon storage sinks. Other effects include increased clashes between locals and illegal logging companies.

The increased profits are then funnelled into organised crime and terrorism, since the same smuggling/money laundering channels can be used for illegal timber or timber products as for everything else.

For example, one East African terrorist group is estimated to make $38-56 million a year from the illegal trade in charcoal. As the report points out, this is their largest source of cash to fund their terrorist activities.

Key Findings

The report has 12 recommendations, everything from co-ordinating legislation, information and regulation, to acknowledging the multiple dimensions of environmental crime.

One key finding was that poverty in the donor country was not, of itself, one of the most important factors. Instead the changes, particularly in wildlife crime, were driven by consumer demand. So programmes aimed at educating and reminding the end consumers of where their new purchase came from were seen as having a major impact.

To go with that, one way of helping end users know the facts is through labelling and standards, thus programmes aimed at certification and so on should be encouraged.

Equally, although it is not a specific recommendation in the report, the data and resources of agencies involved in tackling cybercrime in all its guises could be used to combat some of these threats further down the supply chain.

Thus not only would there be clear improvements in the environmental situation but terrorist groups would have their funding cut off or at least reduced.

Solutions Being Trialled

In the shorter term what can governments do? Several answers are already being tried out. They include a range of original thinking. What the trials demonstrate is that governments can work with charities to come up with innovative solutions. The charities can then bring in private funding, in these cases from sources as diverse as Google and the German KfW Development Bank.

Scientific American highlights how authorities in Indonesia have worked with a tiny start-up to plant listening devices in the jungle canopy. The devices are simply reprogrammed old smartphones that have been donated. Equipped with solar chargers, they provide audio of sounds in the jungle. When the sound of chainsaws or engines is heard, resources can be sent to address the problem.

A project in Cameroon, Africa is being rolled out now on a larger scale, covering a 200,000-hectare forest. The area includes three concessions certified for logging by the Forest Stewardship Council. Timber is harvested legally on a prearranged timetable so any sounds outside that will immediately draw attention. However, the problem does go wider as Topher White, from Rainforest Connection, admits:

‘To be blunt, providing an accounting for corruption within the concession – including illegal logging by those who work there – is amongst the primary goals of the pilot.’

Drone Oversight

Another approach receiving serious consideration is the use of drones, where crossovers with security services may well prove beneficial. As it is, there is a programme in Nepal, where the terrain makes it difficult to move around. Just the sight of drones has reduced illegal activity.

In the African continent, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya are all considering the use of drones. A programme run by the WWF which has received a $5 million grant from Google has allowed the use of high-tech thermal imaging cameras in the drones, which can detect humans, campfires and so on.

Flying Through The Problems

But such surveillance has already run into trouble. Crawford Allan, director of the world’s leading wildlife monitoring programme, TRAFFIC, admits that part of this is simply ‘drone phobia’. People associate drones with battlefields and missile strikes. Equally, the cost of an ex-military drone is prohibitive for most charities and non-military organisations.

The other issue is that of surveillance and privacy. India has halted its programme aimed at protecting one-horned rhino, and other countries are making up laws and regulations on a one-by-one basis until the situation becomes clearer. The use of drones near borders, even if they’re flying over government-owned remote habitat, has made several countries suspicious as to their possible uses. As with many situations, the technology has advanced faster than the legal and ethical frameworks.

The effects of environmental crime reach around the world, from a local unable to sell legal timber at a sustainable price, to a terrorist atrocity the other side of the world funded by the illegal logging. It will take concerted effort by departments working together within a country – everything from counter-terrorism to liaising with charities and NGOs – as well as countries working together to combat this crime.

For the full report, click here.


About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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