How Environmental Crime Puts Billions Of Dollars In The Pockets Of Terrorists And Criminals

Photo courtesy of the US Army via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Environmental crime is estimated to be up to a $70-$213 billion business, the enormous profits of which aid criminal, militia, and terrorist groups — money made specifically through the harm of endangered species, the earth, and developing nations.  

Here’s what you should know about the illicit business, and why it threatens international stability.

What constitutes as environmental crime?

According to a new report (pdf) from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL called “The Environmental Crime Crisis,” the growing issue of environmental crime encompases:

  • Illegal logging and trade
  • Extraction and trade in minerals/mining
  • Illegal fisheries
  • Trade and poaching of plants and wildlife
  • Trade and dumping of hazardous waste

These things are illegal because of their threat to the environment — but that doesn’t stop criminals from exploiting natural resources on their own terms, and profiting tremendously, even while the developing economies they steal from suffer.

Who are the criminals, and what are they gaining?

Terrorist groups, non-state armed groups, horse gangs, and militia groups are among the many criminals that profit from a range of environmental crimes.

Specifically, terrorist group Al Shabaab in East Africa makes anywhere between $38 and $56 million on an illegal charcoal trade; other groups named in the report include Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Illegal logging and forest crime amount for the highest amount of environmental crime at $30 – $100 billion annually, which also happens to be 10 – 30% of the entire global timber trade, much of which is imported into the US as paper, pulp or wood chips.

The trade of fauna and flora, notably including the poaching of elephants, rhinos, great apes and plenty more, earns criminals between $7 and $23 billion annually and rapidly diminishes species’ populations.

Illegal fisheries make up to $30 billion, mineral trade up to $48 billion, and the trading and dumping of hazardous waste up to $11 billion.

Numbers were calculated using trial information, statistics from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, INTERPOL arrests and seizures, UN Security Council information, and investigators’ physical counting of timber trucks.

What are the impacts?

The report emphasizes that this illegal trade has gotten so extreme, it spans far beyond environmental impacts; by depriving developing economies from billions of dollars in lost revenue, it undermines livelihood, governance, and security of many countries.

Basically, it’s a barrier to sustainable development and environmental sustainability — an issue that destabilizes the global community at large, and which requires an international and holistic approach to tackle.

What can be done?

The report, which was published as a rapid response assessment due to the subject’s severity, recommends that in spite of numerous successful efforts, which have lead to arrests and seizures, lowered deforestation in Brazil, and increased protection for certain areas, action must be increased.

The UNEP recommends 12 measures be taken, including:

  • Awareness: acknowledge and share dimensions of environmental crime and its impact; implement consumer awareness campaigns — without consumer demand, crime decreases
  • Coordination: coordinate a UN and national approach to efforts on legislation and regulation, and support UNEP as global authority
  • Legislation: create, enforce, and strengthen laws regarding environmental protection, trade regulation, product certification, and methods to stop organized crime at the front line.

As we’ve written about before, the situation is especially grave for African elephants — if poaching does not stop, Africa will lose one fifth of its elephant population within the decade.

Take a look at the full Environmental Crime Crisis report below.

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Jennifer Markert