Environmental crime soars to record levels

Orangutan trafficking in North Sumatra photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Indonesia.Environmental crime has now outstripped the illegal trade in small arms. It is now estimated that natural resources worth as much as much as US$ 258 billion are being plundered by criminals worldwide.

According to a new rapid response report, The Rise of Environmental Crime, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the international network of police forces, INTERPOL, the monetary value of environmental crime is 26 per cent higher than previously estimated.

The annual monetary value of environmental crime is now estimated to be between $91 billion and $258 billion, compared with between $70 billion and $213 billion in 2014.

“The growth rate of these crimes is astonishing,” the UNEP/INTERPOLreport states. For the first time, and in just a few decades, environmental crime has “diversified and skyrocketed” to become the world’s fourth largest criminal enterprise after drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.

Environmental crime – which includes the illegal trade in wildlife, corporate crime in the forestry sector, the illegal exploitation and sale of gold and other minerals, illegal fisheries, the trafficking of hazardous waste, and carbon credit fraud – is growing two to three times faster than global GDP, the new report says.

 “The international community must recognise and address environmental crimes as a serious threat to peace and sustainable development, and strengthen the environmental rule of law at all levels.”

Over the past decade, environmental crime has increased by at least 5-7 percent per year. It now dwarfs the illegal trade in small arms, which is valued at about $3 billion, the new report points out.

“Environmental crime is vastly expanding and increasingly endangering not only wildlife populations but entire ecosystems, sustainable livelihoods, and revenue streams to governments.”

The value of the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be between $7 billion and $23 billion annually. Forestry crimes account for an estimated $51 billion to $152 billion; illegal fisheries for an estimated $11 billion to $24 billion; illegal mining for an estimated $12 billion to $48 billion; and trafficking in hazardous waste for about $10 billion to $12 billion.

Deforestation, the dumping of chemicals, and illegal fishing deplete ecosystem services, the new report points out. Communities’ access to clean air and water is threatened, as is their food security and their health and well-being. The capacity for extreme weather mitigation is reduced.

By some estimates, more than a quarter of the world’s elephant population has been lost in a decade. Some of world’s most vulnerable wildlife, like rhinos and elephants, are being killed at a rate that has grown by more than 25 per cent every year over the past ten years.


A dead Sumatran elephant discovered in 2012. Poisoning was suspected. Photograph: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA.

In Tanzania, poachers have killed an average of 3,000 elephants per year over the past decade. The annual street market value for ivory traffickers is $10.5 million, an amount that is five times greater than the entire national budget of Tanzania’s wildlife division.

Weak laws and poorly funded security forces are enabling international criminal networks and armed rebels to profit from a trade that fuels conflicts, devastates ecosystems, and is threatening species with extinction, the UNEP/INTERPOL report states.


Macaques in Pramuka market in Jakarta, Indonesia.

UNEP’s executive director, Achim Steiner, said: “Interpol and UNEP have joined forces to bring to the attention of the world the sheer scale of environmental crime.

“The vast sums of money generated from these crimes keep sophisticated international criminal gangs in business, and fuel insecurity around the world.

“The result is not only devastating to the environment and local economies, but to all those who are menaced by these criminal enterprises. The world needs to come together now to take strong national and international action to bring environmental crime to an end.”

The amount of money lost as a result of environmental crime is 10,000 times greater than the amount spent by international agencies on combatting it ($20-30 million).

In one example cited in the new report, an individual vessel involved in illegally fishing Patagonian toothfish was estimated to have had catches valued at between $200 million and $300 million.

The UNEP/INTERPOL report cites ways in which the money generated from the illegal exploitation of natural resources funds rebel groups, terrorism networks, and international criminal cartels.

INTERPOL secretary-general Jürgen Stock said: “The complexity of this type of criminality requires a multi-sector response underpinned by collaboration across borders.”

Stock said INTERPOL was “resolutely committed” to working with its member countries to combat the organised crime networks active in environmental crime.

“Environmental crime has impacts beyond those posed by regular criminality. It increases the fragility of an already brittle planet. The resulting vast losses to our planet rob future generations of wealth, health, and well-being on an unprecedented scale,” Steiner and Stock state in their foreword to the new report.

The UNEP-INTERPOL report calls for improved national and international legislation, substantial punishments, capacity building, and technological support in the fight against environmental crime.

There should, it says, be measures aimed at disrupting overseas tax havens; an increase in financial support commensurate with the serious threat that environmental crime poses to sustainable development; and economic incentives and alternative livelihoods for those at the bottom of the environmental crime chain.

“Governments should establish central coordination and national cross-sectoral plans, with unity of command and unity of efforts, in coordination with the relevant UN entities, INTERPOL, and other relevant international treaty bodies and institutions, as appropriate, to combat the involvement of criminal organised groups in environmental crimes.”

There are significant examples worldwide of cross-sectoral cooperation in the fight against environmental crime, Steiner and Stock state. Forests and ecosystems are being successfully restored.

“Such collaboration, sharing, and joining of efforts within and across borders, whether formal or informal, is our strongest weapon in fighting environmental crime.”

Criminal cartels

Transnational criminal networks are using environmental crime to launder drug money, the UNEP/INTERPOL report states.

The report cites the example of illegal gold mining in Colombia, which is now considered to be one of the easiest ways to launder money from the country’s drug trade.

In the Amazon region, armed groups tax gold, coltan (a mineral used in mobile phones), and timber to fund their operations.

International criminal cartels are also involved in the trafficking of hazardous waste and chemicals. Criminals often mislabel the waste to evade law enforcement agencies.

In 2013, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the illegal trade in e-waste to Southeast Asia and the Pacific was estimated to be worth $3.75 billion a year.

Rebel groups

The new report also cites the example of criminal networks linked to the conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who have spent about 2 per cent of their proceeds to fund up to 49 different rebel groups.

According to some UN estimates, the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the eastern DRC is valued at between $722 million and $862 million annually.

The Colombian rebel group FARC is reported to make an estimated $12 million every year from extorting illegal gold miners.

White-collar crime

The UNEP/INTERPOL report also makes reference to the rise in white-collar environmental crime.

This ranges from the use of shell companies in tax havens to launder money generated from illegal logging to transfer mispricing, hacking, and identity theft.

Carbon trading is the world’s fastest growing commodities market. Carbon credit fraud cases have involved hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shifting targets

“Criminals are becoming more advanced and are shifting from ivory to giant clams and pangolins,” the UNEP/INTERPOL report states.

Smugglers are shifting from trafficking ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to dealing in the more scarce hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are being phased out.

Customs-officers-in-Vietnam-with-more-than-100-live-pangolins-seized-from-smugglers-in-December-2012 EIA

Customs officers in Vietnam with more than 100 live pangolins seized from smugglers in December 2012. Photo from the Environmental Investigation Agency.


Headline photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Indonesia. (Orangutan trafficking in North Sumatra, Indonesia.)