Environmental Crime Worth Up to $258 Billion a Year Across Globe

Zafrir Rinat
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A pangolin is released into the wild by Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) officials at a conservation forest in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, March 1, 2013.
A pangolin is released into the wild by Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) officials at a conservation forest in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, Indonesia.Credit: AP
Zafrir Rinat

The estimated value of environmental crimes around the world has jumped by 26 percent since 2014, to between $91 billion and $258 billion, according to a new report by Interpol and the United Nations.

The assessment, which was published on Saturday to mark World Environment Day, June 5, so-called ecocrime is the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world, after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

Environmental crime is a catch-all term for illegal activities that harm the environment and generate profits from the exploitation of, damage to, trade or theft of natural resources, including serious crimes and transnational organized crime.

Until recently, illegal trade in wildlife was considered the most significant in terms of economic impact. However, the report shows that it has been surpassed by the value of illegal logging and deforestation and the illegal mining of gold and diamonds.

The actual cost of ecocrime is likely to be much higher than the estimates due to the difficulty in tracking and documenting illegal activities.

White-collar ecocrime

Carbon-credit fraud and the trafficking of hazardous waste and chemicals, often by international crime cartels, are two “growth areas” in environmental crime across the globe.

The report highlights the rise of white-collar environmental crime, from carbon-credit fraud and the use of shell companies in tax havens to launder money from illegal logging to transfer mispricing, hacking and identity theft.

The wholesale slaughter of rhinoceroses and elephants continues, but one of the most vulnerable animals to smuggling is the pangolin, an insect-eating mammal living in Africa and Asia. It is estimated that over a million of these animals have been killed and trafficked in the past decade for their meat and their scales, which are used in folk remedies in East Asia.

Illegal fishing is another burgeoning ecocrime, with an estimated one-fifth of all catches worldwide obtained from no-fishing zones.

Trade in illegal wood is a well-oiled industry of false permits and underworld involvement. Some underworld organizations have moved into ecocrime because they realize it is low-risk and high-profit.

It is believed that countries are losing some $9.26 billion a year from the non-payment of taxes on natural resources exploited by environmental criminals.

International enforcement bodies are far behind in their efforts to prevent ecocrime. The cost of the losses is 10,000 times the amount of money spent on enforcement. In many nature reserves in Africa the budget for enforcement is barely 1 percent of what is needed.

However, alongside the failures in ecocrime prevention are some actions that have proven effective in reducing the phenomenon. Brazil has significantly reduced illegal logging in the Amazon. The main factor in the successful response is that the Brazilian government has concentrated treatment of the problem in one authority, which itself has become more efficient.

The report calls for more funding and human resources and harsher penalties in international law. It also calls for increased awareness among consumers of the detrimental environmental effects of illegal trade in animal parts for folk remedies.

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