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Environmental crime reaches new record of $258b, report finds

  • A new report by Interpol and the UN raises estimates for the value of environmental crime, $70-213 billion for 2014 to $91-258 billion for 2015.
  • Only drug trafficking, counterfeiting and human trafficking are thought to bring in higher revenues for transnational organized criminal groups.
  • The report recommends strong new legislation and sanctions as a countermeasure, as well as the disruption of tax havens where much of the proceeds are laundered.

The value of global environmental crime has been drastically underestimated and is now thought to amount to as much as $258 billion annually, according to research by the United Nations Environment Program and Interpol, dwarfing the illegal trade in small arms.

A report published by the UNEP and Interpol this week found that previous estimates of between $70-213 billion for 2014 needed to be revised upwards by more than 26%, to $91-258 billion for 2015.

Weak laws and poorly funded security forces have enabled international criminal networks and non-state armed groups to profit from the trade, fuelling conflicts, devastating ecosystems and threatening species with extinction, the report found.

Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, said in a statement that the trade was driving instability and environmental destruction on a global scale.

“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,” he said.

Only drug trafficking, counterfeiting and human trafficking are thought to bring in higher revenues for transnational organized criminal groups, while the money spent on combating the trade is 10,000 times less that the money lost as a result.

The stump of an illegally logged tree in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province. Illegal logging cost the country $9 billion in state revenue from unreported timber sales from 2003-14, according to a report by the nation’s anticorruption agency. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

The report, titled The Rise of Environmental Crime, says that the phenomenon has grown up to three times faster than global gross domestic product, at between 5-7% annually, and recommends strong new legislation and sanctions as a countermeasure, as well as the disruption of tax havens where much of the proceeds are laundered.

Along with more traditional environmental crimes, such as logging, money generated from the illegal exploitation of other natural resources has been used by criminal cartels to launder drug money, the report says, pointing to evidence that illegal gold mining in Colombia has now become one of the easiest way for traffickers to launder money from the drug trade.

Hazardous waste and chemicals trafficking has also in recent years become a multi-billion-dollar industry in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, it said.

In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the threat of a return to war looms over the fate of refugees from Burundi, criminal networks exploiting natural resources have funded some 49 armed groups with the proceeds.

So-called white-collar crime — particularly the use of shell companies, tax havens, hacking and identity theft — has risen sharply, the report found, with fraud on the carbon trading market amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

An illegal logging operation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Vittoria Luda, program coordinator of the Emerging Crimes Unit of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, said the rapidly evolving trade had been “extremely responsive to law enforcement and regulation improvement” and the groups involved ranged from loosely associated criminals to traditional “mafia-type” organized crime groups.

“It is important to remember that organized crime groups are becoming increasingly more diversified in their business activities, engaging in tax fraud and corporate crimes to facilitate and conceal their environmental crimes,” said Davyth Stewart, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol’s environmental security division.

“In terms of criminal activity, the most significant rise is the extent to which financial crimes and corruption are involved in facilitating eco-crimes,” he said, adding that the largest eco-crimes by value remain in the forestry and fisheries sectors.

“There are, however, other forms of eco-crime on the rise, including trafficking in electronic waste, and trafficking in hazardous chemicals, like ozone-depleting substances and climate gases like [hydrochlorofluorocarbons],” he said.

“Further, our intelligence clearly shows that criminal networks are transnational, and that increased law enforcement efforts to crack down on criminal activity in one country, or one particular location, often results in a shift in illegal activity to another location in a neighboring country.”

“Effective law enforcement efforts will require far greater resources. In particular, law enforcement will need to invest more in investigations that target the kingpins within the criminal networks.  A wildlife seizure or arrest of poachers or illegal loggers should be the start — not the end — of the investigation.”

These baby orangutans were confiscated from a trafficker in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2015. Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay