Organised environmental crime needs sharper response: Report

An undated evidence photograph released by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) allegedly shows a rhino horn being sawn off with a chain saw in Cameroon. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
An undated evidence photograph released by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) allegedly shows a rhino horn being sawn off with a chain saw in Cameroon. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A Greenpeace activist demonstrates while holding a banner reading "Illegal timber, forests in danger" against the illegal importation of timber coming from Brazil and Congo on May 22, 2014 in front of a warehouse belonging to French sawmill Robert &a
A Greenpeace activist demonstrates while holding a banner reading "Illegal timber, forests in danger" against the illegal importation of timber coming from Brazil and Congo on May 22, 2014 in front of a warehouse belonging to French sawmill Robert & Cie. -- PHOTO: AFP

THE fight against organised environmental crime is being lost as corruption and bureaucracy undermine efforts to combat it, a new report warns.

Environmental crime is defined in the report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC), a Geneva-based think tank, as covering illegal timber trade, illegal fishing, illegal wildlife trade, trade in ozone depleting substances and hazardous waste.

Environmental crime is both national and transnational in nature, with profits so enormous that organised international criminal groups are engaged in the business.

From parts of Africa to South-east Asia and south America, non-state armed groups are also thought to have benefitted from environmental crime.

Armed African groups are long known to have raised money from ivory sales. A Thai member of an international poaching syndicate with links to Laos is currently on trial in South Africa for rhino horn trafficking. 

The Colombian rebel group FARC controls a tungsten mine which last year was reported to be selling the mineral to several global corporations.

"Environmental crime is one of the most damaging, high profile and economically significant fields of global criminal activity’’ the GITOC report says.

The value of trade in wildlife alone is around US$ 19 billion (S$24 billion) a year.  Rhino horn, for instance, costs more than US$90,000 per kilogramme and is more valuable than gold and cocaine. 

The value of illegal fishing is estimated at US$23 billion per year.

In the Amazon region, deforestation increased up to 103 per cent in 2012-2013, with estimated profits of US$100 billion for the illegal timber industry.

The annual value of trade in banned Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) in East Asia where most production takes place is an estimated US$68 million.

ODS are gases that are banned because they deplete the thin membrane of ozone in the atmosphere that essentially makes life possible by blocking harmful rays from the sun, but are still used in some industries because substitutes are more expensive.

‘‘Unchecked corruption and sophisticated criminal networks have created an illicit economy in environmental products, which is pushing species to the brink of extinction, transforming thriving rainforests into impoverished wasteland, and polluting the environment with toxic waste,’’ the report says.

The GITOC urges greater recognition of the role of organised transnational syndicates in environmental crime; more focus on the corruption that lubricates the business; and the targeting of criminal controllers and their assets.   

A plethora of bilateral and multilateral agreements, as well as national and international agencies, renders the response to organised environmental crime cumbersome and ineffective, the report charges.

One measure recommended is to establish a new, specialised international protocol on environmental crime. 

‘‘At the national level, environmental crime has long been perceived as a ‘green issue’, fragmented across a range of multi-lateral institutions and international conventions,’’ the    GITOC says. 

But lack of political will, inconsistent and fragmented use of resources, ambiguous mandates, and tiptoeing around diplomatic sensitivities at international forums, was hampering the response, it contends.

‘‘A universal legal framework is needed that would firmly situate environmental crime as a serious, organised and criminal activity, and provide the legal architecture for international cooperation and national responses,’’ the report says.

From South-East Asia to Africa, forest and wildlife protection Rangers face heavily armed poachers on a daily basis. Seizures of large quantities of illicit produce from timber to ivory, and battles at sea over illegal fishing, grab media headlines but largely fail to address the controllers of the trade and their financial assets.

Mr  Justin Gosling, a law enforcement consultant formerly with Interpol, who was the main author of the report, told The Straits Times in an interview: ‘‘Global focus tends to be on the direct perpetrators, whilst controllers of criminal networks reap huge profits, and are rarely prosecuted even when they are identified.’’

‘‘Laotian Vixay Keosavang is alleged to oversee the Xaysavang network, responsible for trafficking of millions of animals including rhino horn from South Africa. In 2013, the US Government issued a US $1 million reward for the dismantling of the Xaysavang network - yet to date, no arrest warrant has been issued for Keosavang and he remains at large,’’ said Mr Gosling.

‘‘This report looks perhaps for the first time not just at the threat posed by environmental crime, but at the response to it. And the experts consulted have found it woefully inadequate and out of pace with the current threat posed by organised criminals.’’

One of few convicted offenders mentioned in the report is Labora Sitorus, an Indonesian police officer and timber smuggler convicted last month for illegal logging and money laundering. US$127 million was found to have passed through his bank accounts.

But even Labora Sitorus is a mid-level facilitator; convictions of high-ranking officials remain ‘‘conspicuously absent’’, Mr Gosling said, blaming the corruption that is ‘‘endemic throughout environmental crime’’.

In an email ahead of the release of the report on Wednesday, Dr Mark Shaw, director of the GITOC, wrote: ‘‘A global strategy that targets controllers of criminal enterprises, tackles high-level corruption and prioritises responses for tangible impact is urgently required.’’

‘‘Key ecosystems are under irreparable threat,’’ he warned. ‘‘This is an urgent call to action.’’

nirmal@sph.com.sg