Tackling timber and wildlife trafficking

After holding back for years, Asean is edging closer to including environmental crime such as wildlife and timber trafficking under transnational organised crime.

Doing so would move environmental crime now handled by agriculture, forestry and environment ministries to national security ministries.

After all, it's the national security ministries - like defence and the interior - and the agencies under them that have the teeth to deal effectively with environmental crime.

Currently, Asean's list of transnational organised crimes includes terrorism, human trafficking, illicit drug trafficking, money laundering, sea piracy, arms smuggling, international economic crime and cybercrime.

Adding timber and wildlife trafficking to the list would raise the priority given to environmental crime in government policy, turning it into a security priority for Asean as a whole and for the individual governments in the 10-member grouping. It would mandate more commitment and more resources in terms of funding, staffing and specialised training for investigators, enforcers and prosecutors.

An elephant tusk and ivory trinkets on sale in a shop in Hong Kong. The total value of environmental crime in South-east Asia is estimated to be US$23 billion (S$31 billion). PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

That environmental crime warrants all this, would seem obvious. The total value of environmental crime in South-east Asia is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to be US$23 billion (S$31 billion), which is roughly the combined gross domestic product of Laos and Cambodia.

Environmental crime, whose scale goes beyond a local person venturing into the forest to chop down a tree for firewood or to kill an endangered bird for dinner, invariably involves several countries in a chain of criminality.

For instance, in an incident that is not uncommon, the Thai authorities seized 4.3 tonnes of ivory in May from a smuggler who was taking the shipment from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Laos, via Thailand.

That environmental crime is a question of national security also seems fairly obvious. A rhino horn is worth a case of second-hand automatic rifles and ammunition on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

"Increasingly, poaching funds the activities of terrorist organisations, rebel movements and other armed groups throughout the (African) continent," the New York-based security consultancy Soufan Group wrote in February last year.

"The illicit ivory trade will continue to fuel instability until states - in cooperation with other actors - slow the rate of poaching, disrupt trafficking networks and reduce international demand."

South-east Asia is little different.

Some border areas are wildlife and timber trade free-for-alls, far from the reach of enforcement agencies, and protected by ethnic warlords.

In Nepal, as in Namibia and South Africa, the army is forced to protect rhinos and go after poachers. In Thailand, paramilitary rangers exchange fire regularly with armed loggers, often from Cambodia, to protect valuable rosewood trees.

And the security risk goes well beyond gunfights.

The Sars virus, which in 2003 killed more than 770 people and is estimated by the World Health Organisation to have cost US$30 billion globally in preventive measures and business losses, was traced to infected bats coming into contact with civets at a Chinese market.

The virus jumped from the bats to the civets, where it multiplied and evolved before jumping to humans.

And there is considerable overlap between environmental crime and other crimes, according to Ms Sallie Yang, a senior programme officer with the Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation, which works on wildlife crime issues.

"The same people, the same groups, do wildlife crime in addition to human trafficking and drugs," she said.

All 10 Asean member states have signed the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, which obliges them to cooperate in information sharing and law enforcement.

But within Asean itself are issues that hamper a concerted response.

The definition of wildlife or forest crime may vary. There are different laws and different penalties in different countries, and there is uneven enforcement, experts say.

Experts have long been calling for greater priority to be given to environmental crime. What has been holding Asean back?

For one thing, there is a pervasive attitude in some Asean member states that forests and wildlife are considered commodities, said Mr Brian Gonzalez, an expert with the Freeland Foundation who works closely with the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-WEN).

Sources familiar with the Asean issues and negotiations also noted that in some countries, there are powerful, politically connected vested interests in unfettered trade in timber and wildlife products, who would resist regulation.

Asean ministers are due to meet to discuss transnational crime in Kuala Lumpur in September. Sources familiar with the issues caution that Malaysia, which is hosting the meeting, may still have reservations on technical and bureaucratic grounds, which could sink the listing of environmental crime as a priority.

That would be a mistake.

Already, Asean's own natural resources and biodiversity are being hollowed out.

The Greater Mekong region - among the world's top five for biodiversity - has lost nearly one-third of its forests in the past 35 to 40 years. And unless something is done, it could be left with only 10 to 20 per cent by 2030, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates.

As many as 139 new species were discovered by scientists in the Greater Mekong region alone last year.

Said Mr Carlos Drews, WWF's Global Species Programme director, in May: "One wonders how many species have disappeared before they were even discovered."

A study by the independent organisation Forest Trends, released yesterday, found that  Cambodia is losing its forests at the rate of 804 sq miles (2,082 sq km) a year - larger than Singapore - "primarily because the government gives large land concessions... many of which operate illegally".

A University of Maryland study, based on high-resolution satellite data and released in June last year, found that Indonesia lost more than six million hectares - roughly the size of Sri Lanka - of natural forests between 2000 and 2012.

Explained Mr Giovanni Broussard, the Bangkok-based officer of UNODC's Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime: "Environmental crime can be handled by environment ministries, but when it is organised crime, then it has to be the security ministries, which deal with transnational crime."

He added: "Individual countries may look at environmental crimes as serious, but Asean on a regional level is still not treating them as they should be - as transnational crime."

Asean needs to step up to the fight, or risk losing far more than short-term profits.•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'Tackling timber and wildlife trafficking'. Print Edition | Subscribe