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Transnational Organised Environmental Crime

Transnational Organised Environmental Crime

6 December, 2018
Angus Nurse

In recent years, greater attention has been given internationally to the role of organised crime networks in environmental crime, including the illegal trade in wildlife. There is evidence of organised crime groups being involved in the illegal trade in caviar, as well as the illegal trade in timber. Both are types of illegal use of natural resources that generate considerable sums of money. As long ago as 2002, research analysed evidence of organised crime’s involvement in the illegal trade in wildlife, confirming that organised crime groups (OCGs) have become increasingly involved in the most lucrative parts of the illegal wildlife trade and are prepared to use intimidation and violence. Research and policy perspectives frequently focus on the supply end of organised crime’s activities so that the main policy approach is one of detection, apprehension and punishment. However, policy needs to deal with the demand side of wildlife crime, and also consider how justice systems can better deal with different types of organised environmental crime.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identifies that transnational organised crime is found wherever money can be made from illicit activities. The UNODC says that the illegal trade in timber between Southeast Asia and the EU and other areas in Asia was worth an estimated $3.5 billion in 2010. By contrast, sales of elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts in Asia were worth an estimated $75 million in 2010. Trade in wildlife and timber exists primarily due to demand and the large sums of money available from trading in wildlife products and timber. As a result, it is not surprising that OCGs have moved into these areas given the profits that can be had. OCGs are also active in illegal waste activity within the UK (and elsewhere), leading the environmental regulator, the Environment Agency, to dub organised illegal waste activity ‘the new narcotics’.

The illegal trade in timber between Southeast Asia and the EU and other areas in Asia was worth an estimated $3.5 billion in 2010

With environmental crime becoming a fertile ground for organised crime activity, there is a need to understand the behaviours of different OCGs active in environmental crime. Analysis of organised crime by criminologists reveals that organised crime structures exist at local, national, international, and global levels and across a range of criminal activities, from illegal gambling through to wildlife crime. International criminal organisations operate in much the same way as global corporations with hierarchical structures: they have modes of operating which take advantage of international commercial flows and trade routes, and which sometimes combine both legal and illegal operations.

Linking environmental and wildlife crime to organised crime – and especially the trade in drugs or other trafficking activities – is an important step in bringing wildlife and environmental crime into the mainstream criminal justice and law enforcement policy and debate. Various green criminology researchers have identified that organised crime recognises wildlife crime as a ‘soft option’ where its traditional operations and transit routes can be utilised with a lesser risk of enforcement activity.

Various green criminology researchers have identified that organised crime recognises wildlife crime as a ‘soft option’

South and Wyatt’s (2011) analysis of criminal actors in the illegal drug trade and the wildlife trade identified several different types of OCGs. They called these: trading charities; mutual societies; business sideliners; criminal diversifiers; and opportunistic irregulars. The main motivators varied for each type of OCG, ranging from an attachment to the product or activity (trading charities); friendship networks and associations (mutual societies); increasing profits for legitimate business (business sideliners); increasing profits for illegitimate business (criminal diversifiers); and opportunistic crime (opportunistic irregulars). This and other work on different types of offenders has shown that policy needs to identify the different types and motivations of offenders rather than attempting a ‘one size fits all’ policy to tackle the OCGs behind environmental and wildlife crime. Barrett and White (2017), for example, emphasise the importance of disruption as an enforcement tool, making the case for inter-agency cooperation at a local level where it is possible to do so. This approach is geared towards some attempt to understand the specifics of the actors engaged in illegal activity and to tailor the enforcement approach to suit.  

At the international and global levels, wildlife crime crosses borders and various police and law enforcement jurisdictions, making it difficult to prevent and detect. Policy also needs to explore how to reduce demand for wildlife products and how to better enforce wildlife and environmental legislation – a key area for research going forward.

Policy needs to explore how to reduce demand for wildlife products and how to better enforce wildlife and environmental legislation

Reliance on detection and prosecution as a response to organised environmental crime is likely to be of limited effectiveness, given the many varied aspects of transnational organised environmental crime that exist, which range from the dumping of hazardous waste, to cybercrime and the illegal wildlife trade, to links with the illegal drug trade in different areas. Indeed, an approach based primarily on seizures and prosecutions is of limited use, unless more and more resources are consistently thrown into the fight. For example, in wildlife trafficking there is some evidence that traffickers build animal mortality and seizure of wildlife by enforcers into their operations. This means that the deaths of wildlife in trade and the taking of their ‘product’ by law enforcement become part of the costs of doing business. At the same time, some markets for wildlife products are said to be expanding, so traffickers may simply attempt to take more wildlife or timber to offset their ‘losses’. The result is that an increase in the number of seizures may not reflect a decrease in the supply, and a policy of enforcement by seizure needs to be properly resourced.

Addressing environmental crimes requires effective prosecution of offences and ways of remedying environmental harm. Yet, there is evidence that in some cases prosecutions activity is of questionable effectiveness where environmental knowledge is lacking among judges and prosecutors. Research also shows that sentencing is often at the lower end of the scale for some offences. Although some jurisdictions have begun to report successes after reforming prosecution approaches, policy also needs to consider preventative measures and ways to directly reduce demand for wildlife products so that this is a less attractive option for organised crime. While there have been some developments in this area, we still have a long way to go.

Dr Angus Nurse is Associate Professor, Environmental Justice at Middlesex University School of Law where he teaches and researches criminology and law. Angus has research interests in criminality, critical criminal justice, animal and human rights law, anti-social behaviour and green criminology. He is particularly interested in animal law and its enforcement and the reasons why people commit environmental crimes and crimes against animals. Angus is a member of the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) and has previously worked in the environmental NGO field, and as an Investigator for the Local Government Ombudsman. His books include Policing Wildlife (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Animal Harm: Perspectives on why People Harm and Kill Animals (Ashgate, 2013).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

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