Criminal Gangs Plunder the Planet for Quick Profit

VIENNA, Austria, October 14, 2008 (ENS) – Organized environmental crime is a serious and growing threat across the world, according to a new report by the undercover Environmental Investigation Agency. The London-based NGO today presented its report to a United Nations meeting on transborder organized crime in Vienna with an urgent call for action.

The report warns that environmental crime generates tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminal enterprises every year, and it is growing.

EIA campaigns director Julian Newman said, “Our report shows how organized criminals are looting the planet for a quick profit. It is time for the international community to step up and meet this threat head on.”

An investigator examines a leopard
skin in Nagchu, Tibet Autonomous Region,
China, August 2005. (Photo by Debbie
Banks courtesy EIA)

Environmental crimes are illegal acts which directly harm the environment, and include the illegal trade in wildlife, smuggling of ozone-depleting and global-warming substances, illicit trade in hazardous waste, illegal fishing, illegal logging and the associated trade in stolen timber.

EIA, which has exposed environmental crime using undercover methods for 24 years, says its recent experience indicates environmental criminals are becoming more organized, building up networks to operate across international frontiers and using sophisticated techniques to move illegal goods around the world and launder the proceeds.

The report, “Environmental crime – A Threat to Our Future” was presented to the fourth session of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, UNCTOC, at an event organized by EIA.

Antonio Mario Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, spoke at the launch of EIA’s report.

“At a time when climate change and environmental sustainability are such high priorities, it is shocking to think that there are criminals profiting from the destruction of our planet. This is not a victimless crime. On the contrary. Since we share one planet, damage to the environment anywhere in the world hurts us all,” said Costa.

Environmental crime is often perceived as victimless, yet in reality all of us are affected, EIA says. These crimes lead to deforestation and habitat destruction, depriving communities of their livelihoods; cause ecological problems such as flooding; foster corruption and bad governance; and contribute to climate change, and at the same time generate tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminal enterprises.

Addressing delegates to the UNCTOC conference today, Costa linked organized crime with many forms of environmental destruction.

“At a time of great concern about climate change,” he said, “let’s recognize that organized crime is an environmental threat, from mafia control of garbage disposal and the dumping of hazardous waste, to the destruction of primary forests, illegal logging and the trafficking of endangered species.”

“Above all organized crime is also an economic issue,” Costa said, “it exploits resources like blood diamonds, precious metals, or by bunkering oil. Piracy and banditry disrupt trade and prevent aid delivery.”

Most of all, organized crime is a development issue, said Costa, citing reports on corruption in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and the Balkans, that show “a correlation, even causality, between weak rule of law and weak economic performance.”

Saying that the UN system needs to train more skilled people to fight corruption, Costa and Interpol chief Ron Noble today announced the joint establishment of the International Anti-Corruption Academy.

The new academy will open next autumn in Laxenburg just outside Vienna, specializing in anti-corruption education, research, and professional training.

Indonesian customs officers inspect a seizure of
smuggled cylinders of ozone-destroying
CFCs produced in China. Tanjung Priok
port, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2004. (Photo
by Julian Newman courtesy EIA)

The EIA hopes it will make a difference in combating organized environmental crime, which is often linked with corruption.

The EIA report states, “Individuals in corporate or official positions of authority and power view environmental crime as a chance to cash in.”

Examples of this can be found in the case studies of the EIA report, “signing and forging import and export certificates; facilitating the transport of illicit goods and ‘turning a blind eye’ are all examples of the institutionalized corruption described.”

“Far more serious, and yet just as common,” says the EIA report, “is the complicit, longterm involvement of individuals from the police, army, government and intergovernmental organisations. Cocooned by familiar bureaucracies, weak legislation and poor enforcement, corrupt officials can thrive through environmental crime. Furthermore, corruption may be preventing the true cost and extent of environmental crime from being properly assessed or effectively addressed.”

Although many international bodies such as the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Customs Organization have recognized environmental crime as serious and transnational, EIA believes it is not taken as seriously as other forms of organized crime because countries lack the political will to provide the resources to carry out enforcement.

The EIA is urging governments, police forces, customs and United Nations agencies to recognize environmental crime as a serious time-critical problem, and work together to mount a “substantial, committed and sustained global response.”

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