On 17 November 2014 Interpol announced their first ever list of the world’s most wanted environmental criminals. The list of 139 criminals included nine wanted for crimes against the environment. This includes wildlife trafficking, illegal hazardous waste disposal, and trade in illegal ivory. The announcement was made concurrently with a statement by the Head of Interpol’s Fugitive Investigative Support unit which stressed the belief that “the capture of these criminals on the run will contribute to the dismantlement of transnational organized crime groups who have turned environmental exploitation into a professional business with lucrative revenues.”
Granted, this is a significant step given that Interpol has traditionally focused on drug traffickers and terrorists, but the assertion that this will have the impact suggested is hard to imagine. The pursuit to prevent, deter, and enforce against these environmental crimes, which are odious in their own right, is necessary. However, the path ahead must be placed in its larger context to grasp the magnitude of the problem being tackled.
A joint report by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol place all activities involved in transitional environmental organised crime at 70-213 billion USD. Even at the more conservative estimate, that is an enticingly lucrative industry. Aside from the impact on human populations and the environment more broadly, there are two major effects which result from environmental crimes. On one hand, the UNEP report acknowledges that large-scale trafficking in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions. On the other hand, this underground market, among others, have been noted to fund larger transnational organised crime and terrorism initiatives which are often times indistinguishable.
Transnational organised environmental crime is attractive because it is less risky in nature to other crimes in providing illicit revenue. The Interpol report does much to increase visibility, but the profitability of these crimes coupled with a dearth of enforceable action leaves little disincentive for those who wish to pursue these crimes. Its hard to believe that the capture of single actors will do much to prevent replacements from taking root. This can be exemplified by exploring two illicit industries; trade in illegal ivory, and transnational hazardous waste disposal.
The increases in illegal wildlife trade despite enforcement efforts points to a need to go beyond singling out specific offenders which are easily replaced. One only needs to look to the increasing trade of rhino horn impacting South Africa which is driven by demand in Vietnam and China. Rhino horn has been valued higher than gold and cocaine in these markets. This may explain why South Africa has been largely unsuccessful in their efforts to curtail the poaching of rhinos. In the face of failures to effectively conserve the rhino population, South Africa has considered legalising the trade of rhino horn in an effort to tackle the root of the problem. The logic is that legalisation will reduce the ability of offenders to operate in the underground economy and will provide a market that is based on conservation efforts. While there is considerable doubt about the feasibility of this option it may be helpful in South Africa alone. However, effectively slowing transnational environmental criminals requires coordinated international efforts.
Examining the flow of illegal dumping of hazardous waste highlights the need for international coordination. Demand in the illegal dumping of hazardous waste is driven by the high price of legal disposal and the vast quantities produced. The continued run on the treadmill of production is resulting in mass amounts of wasteful byproducts. Hazardous waste occurs all along the line from production to consumption. One increasingly troubling area is in the proliferation of e-waste. Continued advancements in technology has been married with increased waste from discarded, and often working but outdated, technology. E-waste is landing in developing countries or poor communities that are ill-equipped to handle them.
The actors involved in the profitable area of environmental crimes are not easily identifiable. A recent report by Eurojust focusing on Italy and Ireland found that state actors are no longer committing these types of crimes but, rather, it is almost entirely committed by organised crime groups. Often it is a small, fluid group of actors who are taking advantage of permeable regulatory borders to profit from activities that may not necessarily be classified as crimes in certain jurisdictions.
This hinders the ability to identify, regulate, and enforce the illegal dumping of hazardous waste, including e-waste. The international community is poorly aligned to handle the methods used to perpetrate this harm. The Basel Convention, the only significant international regulation on the transboundary movement of waste, was not designed to tackle organised crime but, rather, corporate and state offenders. In addition, Africa, who is a continuous victim of these crimes, has weak enforcement of their equivalent in the Bamako Convention. This is largely due to crimes filtering through weak or failed states.
With large profits to be made and a relative low amount of risk it is likely that manipulation of regulatory gaps and loopholes will continue. This will make the dismantling of transnational organised groups, who have strong ties to groups who threaten human security, a job requiring far greater action than the identification of nine criminals. While this writer is glad to see a growing acknowledgement on behalf of international organisations of threat posed by environmental criminals, both to human security and the welfare of the environment at large, there remain significant holes in the net aimed at capturing these groups.
Nathan Seef is a PhD Student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is specializing in conflict management and resolution. Nathan received his Masters of international criminology in 2013 from the University of Sheffield, UK. His research interests include transnational organised crime, harms against the environment, and international policing and peacekeeping. Nathan was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and, between his time in South Africa and England, has a keen interest in African and European affairs.
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