How to fight environmental crime

Story highlights

  • Achim Steiner: Value of environmental crime growing at a rate up to three times that of global economy
  • Sheer extent of environmental crime means we cannot solve this problem overnight, he says

Achim Steiner is executive director for the United Nations Environment Programme. The views expressed are the writer's own.

(CNN)The ramshackle corrugated roofs that shelter the Benfica Market in Angola stand in stark contrast to the ordered rows of gleaming ivory trinkets on the tables underneath. The trinkets are carved from tusks taken from the carcasses of elephants killed for their ivory.

Sadly, the demand for ivory products like these has triggered a spree of elephant killing across Africa. Some 100,000 elephants were butchered between 2010 and 2012 by poachers desperate to profit from the rising demand for ivory in Asia. Markets like Benfica -- the largest in southern Africa -- alongside others in Nigeria and South Sudan are at the heart of this gruesome trade.
    That is why Angola's recent announcement that it will take steps to shutter the Benfica market is a large stride forward in the country's efforts to end a trade that threatens one of the animal kingdom's most magnificent creatures; it's a courageous move that serves as a powerful symbol of what can be achieved when governments act.
    Achim Steiner
    But in the meantime, the killing continues, aided by corruption and weak law enforcement. Simply closing markets will not be enough to end the illegal trade in wildlife, nor will it be enough to end the broader problem of environmental crime, which is rapidly becoming one of the most significant threats to global security. From the trafficking of hazardous waste to the illegal sale of gold and other minerals, environmental crime is on the rise across the world. International criminal gangs, rebel groups and white-collar fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of lax laws and ill-equipped law enforcement agencies to reap huge profits from a crime that destroys vital ecosystems and threatens to wipe out species.
    The value of environmental crime is now growing at a rate up to three times that of the global economy, according to a report recently released by UNEP and Interpol. Estimates of the value of environmental crime range from between $91 billion and $258 billion, 26% higher than previously estimated in 2014. Even at the low end, it has outpaced the illegal trade in small arms to become the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
    The silent victims of this crime are the forests, marine ecosystems, animals, plants, corals and rivers targeted by criminals for the profits they generate. Not only are these profits enormous, but the financial fallout is equivalently large: the total cost in terms of the damage done to ecosystems from environmental crime stands at billions of dollars annually.
    But there are human victims, too. The profits from environmental crime breed insecurity around the world. Civil wars, criminal cartels, and even terror groups such as ISIS are funded by proceeds from illegally traded natural resources. Illegal gold mining in Colombia, for example, is now considered the easiest way to launder money from the country's drug trade.
    There are also indirect impacts. The loss in government revenue from environmental crime is thought to range from $9 billion to $26 billion every year. This is money that could be spent training teachers, building infrastructure, and protecting ecosystems from the very crime that is destroying them.
    How can we respond? Combating environmental crime requires a multipronged approach.
    First, the international community must move to strengthen the environmental rule of law -- improving legislation and effectively penalizing law-breakers -- if it is to succeed in disrupting overseas tax havens used by environmental criminals to launder illicit profits.
    Second, to combat environmental crime more directly, governments need a more cohesive approach. Brazil has already proved that this approach works. Robust command and control centers, improved intelligence gathering, the use of satellites and increased enforcement of protected areas resulted in a crackdown on criminal cartels that resulted in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon being reduced by 76%.
    And since much of this crime is transacted across national frontiers, law enforcement agencies need to improve the gathering, analysis and sharing of intelligence on environmental crime at an international level.
    Finally -- and perhaps most urgently -- we need to eliminate demand for the products that come from this type of crime, like the ivory trinkets found in markets across Africa. We can do this by raising consumer awareness of the tragedy of environmental crime.
    In an effort to do just this, the United Nations recently launched one of the most ambitious awareness campaigns in years targeting the illegal trade in wildlife, encouraging people to find their own kindred species and use the hashtag #WildforLife to spread the word about the enormous impact of the trade.
    The reality is that the sheer extent of environmental crime means that we cannot solve this problem overnight. But every day without action is a day that our ecosystems suffer -- and also the people who rely on them for their livelihoods. We all need to commit to bringing environmental crime to an end. It is only through collective action that we can stop this tragedy.