Environmental crimes pose threats to us all

24 Agustus 2019

Transnational environmental crime (TEC) comprises criminal activities relating to natural resources across national borders. They include wildlife trafficking, illegal fishing, water theft, illegal logging and mining, and the dumping of hazardous waste, among other acts.

In some instances, such crimes are perpetrated by organized crime syndicates, corporations and complicit governments. In other cases, they are committed by people who are subsistence offenders (for example, cutting down trees illegally for fuel) or are part of informal networks of varying sizes (such as poaching gangs). In total, these crimes take an estimated $91 billion to $259 billion bite out of the global economy, according to a new study in Nature Sustainability from Michigan State University’s Meredith Gore and her colleagues.

“Transnational environmental crime, or TEC, has become the largest financial driver of social conflicts in the world,” explains Gore, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife. “If it’s not addressed in sustainable development frameworks, these serious threats will undermine development in decades to come.” Gore has spoken to Sustainability Times about TEC’s impacts and about effective ways to address the issue.

Sustainability Times: What’s the most important insight this paper discusses with regards to transnational environmental crime?

Meredith Gore: There are three main points that this paper makes. The first point is that there is an amazing array of really, really smart, motivated, high-capacity individuals who are working on risks associated with TEC. If this was an easy problem to solve, people would have solved it already.

Meredith Gore is a conservation social scientist at Michigan State University.

Collecting diverse opinions from different sectors – academia, nongovernmental organizations, governments and then, of course, communities – and integrating this information in really meaningful ways for decision makers is what’s really going to solidify connections between transnational environmental crime and sustainable development frameworks.

Thus, the second point is that we need a diversity of perspectives to think about connections between transnational environmental crime, environmental security and sustainable development frameworks.

The final point is that transnational environmental crime should not be restricted to the environment-only solution spaces. This is not a fringe environmental issue; it’s not restricted to wildlife and fish crime, and it is a serious problem. The paper defines and characterizes TEC and environmental security in terms of sustainable development frameworks, the guiding principle for balancing human needs with natural resources and ecosystem services. We know that there are major human impacts from TEC, and sustainable development frameworks are affected by all types of TEC.

How does TEC connect to sustainable development?

TEC connects to sustainable development in several ways. It cheats financial and human capital investments made by donors and taxpayer dollars. The effectiveness of development innovations – like technology transfers or public engagement efforts – is undermined by transnational environmental crime.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and other sustainable development strategies are designed to promote security, poverty alleviation and social injustices from crime, among other things. TEC negates these gains. TEC can force displacement of individuals and disproportionately impacts poor and vulnerable individuals all around the world, which in turn can fuel conflicts.

How does transnational environmental crime connect to environmental security?

We defined environmental security as healthy ecosystems with intact biodiversity and the ability of human communities to sustainably access natural resources. While the team was writing the paper, we discussed the broad range of ways TEC connects to environmental security, including by degrading ecosystem health that may produce new opportunities to spread invasive species or infectious pathogens.

We discussed environmental injustice where many TEC actors are actively preventing and exploiting local people, who are already very vulnerable, from accessing the natural resources they need for their livelihoods at the time and place they need to be accessed. In these regards, TEC links to national security, food security and health security.

What don’t we know about the connections between transnational environmental crime and sustainable development?

I think this is an interesting question because we know that we’re really just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg with regards to TEC. The team discussed a range of knowledge gaps while we were writing the paper at a meeting supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. There are a host of issues that we are just beginning to explore.

What is the role of white-collar crime in this space? What’s the role of organizational crime? How do the crimes of the powerful function in this space? What are the gender dimensions of transnational environmental crime? We really don’t know the answers to many of these questions. We know that many levels of corruption remain a pernicious threat, but we really don’t have a handle on where, when and why we have anti-corruption, anti-tech programs that are functioning well.

Is there one thing that you want the reader to take away from your research?

TEC is globally distributed and degrades efforts to achieve peace and security. Risks from TEC must be mitigated in sustainable development efforts.

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