LOST amid the noise surrounding the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been the fact that the deal's environment chapter can potentially help curb one of the severest transnational crimes: wildlife trafficking.
It's estimated that the value of this trade is US$8 billion to US$10 billion (S$13.3 billion) in South- east Asia alone. With Asia-Pacific countries on both the demand and supply side of wildlife trade and with the United States as the world's second largest market for illegal wildlife products, the TPP presents a unique opportunity to combat this insidious trade.
The trade of live wild animals causes some of the worst suffering imaginable. Trafficked animals experience extreme physical pain, often packed into tight spaces, without food or water, for days. As many as four out of five of these animals will die in transit, or within a year. Targeted species like pangolins may well be extinct, as Britain's Prince William put it, "before most people have even heard of them".
Like many, I was sceptical that free trade agreements (FTAs) could meaningfully help protect the world's wild animals. The threats they face - illegal logging and fishing; poaching for live sale and for parts like elephant ivory and rhino horns - are overwhelming. How could a trade agreement intended to lower tariffs and increase trade protect wildlife?
But trade agreements - if they contain stringent standards - can provide the commercial leverage needed to tackle these systemic crises.
World Animal Protection is not for or against FTAs generally; we recognise that trade deals can have adverse and positive impacts. But we also believe that any international agreement of this magnitude must yield the strongest possible protections for the world's animals.
The White House has made public its commitment to enforceable environmental standards in TPP, and has pledged to deliver "the toughest environmental protections of any regional trade agreement".
In a recent report, the US Trade Representative and the State Department illustrated how American FTAs with powerful environmental commitments have led to major reforms.
Coupled with capacity building, FTAs have catalysed US trading partners, like Peru and Oman, to bring their legislation into compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites.
They have spurred FTA partners to build the necessary institutional and legal frameworks to protect wildlife locally; Peru established a ministry of environment and safeguards for protected species. Through the Central American-Dominican Republic FTA, the Central American Wildlife Enforcement Network was established to combat wildlife trafficking. The US FTA with Oman led to stronger protection of species like the Arabian oryx and loggerhead sea turtles.
The inclusion of enforceable commitments is crucial for real reform. The most recent US FTAs have included environmental provisions covering issues ranging from public participation to implementation of Cites, all of which are fully enforceable and subject to trade sanctions - not just diplomatic pressure, if any party does not fulfil its commitments. This gives the provisions teeth, ensuring that they are not just words on paper.
While European Union FTAs include environmental provisions, they have not been enforceable. The EU has instead relied on a cooperative approach. While this approach can benefit the environment, it isn't backstopped with the proverbial stick to ensure that commitments are satisfied. And so we have not seen the types of reforms US FTAs are catalysing for wildlife under EU agreements - not in breadth or speed.
TPP could be the most ambitious FTA yet to protect the environment and animals - and we are urging Asia-Pacific and other TPP countries to agree to fully enforceable provisions to prevent wildlife trafficking and illegal fishing, and enhance marine mammal protection.
Increasing resources in all TPP countries is also critical; as developed countries in the deal, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the US and others must work with TPP partners to equip those working on the ground for wildlife in countries like Vietnam with the resources they need.
These lessons should apply to future FTAs, to protect even more animals. EU agreements, for example, have had impact on farm animals in Brazil and Chile; we believe the inclusion of similar commitments to protect animals in future negotiations, including the Asean-EU FTA, is imperative for wildlife protection in the Asia-Pacific region.
Time will tell if TPP will pass and how the final deal will look.
But, if the deal is to pass, we urge Asia-Pacific countries to not miss a powerful opportunity to protect the environment and its animals. The question is not whether trade treaties are right or wrong but whether they protect or undermine the high standards expected. TPP's environment chapter can potentially enhance and embed standards for wildlife and marine animals.
Mike Baker is chief executive of World Animal Protection (formerly the World Society for the Protection of Animals), an international non-profit organisation promoting animal welfare. A version of this piece was first published in thehill.com, a US political website.