Representing an illegal business worth between 110 and 281 million dollars in 2018, according to estimates made by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), environmental crimes have become the third most lucrative stream of illegal revenue in the world, after drugs and counterfeit goods.
These figures have increased exponentially in recent years, growing by several digits, assisted by an inadequate regulatory system and an offence classification and punishment system which often treats them as civil rather than criminal matters. In addition, allocating police and judicial investigation resources to other areas, such as drug and trafficking in human beings, as well as treating environmental crimes as low risk compared to other types of crime, has created a breeding ground for criminal activity. These organisations engage in illegal mining, deforestation and wildlife trafficking, among other practices, and encourage other crimes such as corruption, money laundering, the hiring of hit men and sexual and worker exploitation.
Bearing in mind that Latin America represents more than 40% of the world’s biodiversity and that the geographic and political complexity of the region makes effective territorial control by States difficult, the fight against environmental crimes as a whole is a herculean task.
Thus, it is necessary to develop strategic and operational actions at various levels. On the one hand, strategic development must necessarily entail the creation of an international regulatory framework, either by means of protocols annexed to important conventions such as the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Convention) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES Convention), or by creating a new international treaty to serve as an umbrella to protect the environment and provide means for addressing environmental crimes.
On the other hand, at an operational level and in line with the conclusions and commitments of the Heads of State and the Ministers of the Interior of the seven largest economies in the world, who met at the G7 on the 4th and 5th of April, 2019, in France, efficient coordination mechanisms and police and judicial cooperation, both national and regional, is required; as well as the creation of specialised multidisciplinary Task Forces and Joint Investigation Teams (JITs). In this regard, the European Union has a significant comparative advantage over other regions, having fostered the development of institutions whose main purposes are coordination, exchange of information and inter-institutional and inter-country work. Examples of this are Europol and Eurojust.
National agreements against environmental crimes
However, in my opinion, the most efficient but perhaps most complex action is the search for strategic alliances and National agreements to develop comprehensive public policies. These policies would both prevent and establish the criminal nature of environmental crime, and would include important aspects of the fight against poverty, gender perspectives, the promotion of entrepreneurship, promotion of culture and education.
National agreements, together with their public policies, must have a majority consensus of the population and be governed by five basic principles: a willingness to provide financing and specific budgets; control and inspection; transparency; good execution; and, citizen accountability.
In this sense, Latin America has an opportunity, the experience and a duty to take on international leadership when it comes to developing comprehensive public policies to fight environmental crimes more effectively, fostering the transition to a green and responsible economy, as well as sustainable economic growth to generate business and to boost development in communities which are directly dependent on specific ecosystems for their survival.
This applies to a significant percentage of approximately 60 million people who consider themselves indigenous in the Latin American region. Many of them live in the Amazon basin, which has lost 20% of its biodiversity in the last 50 years according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, 2018), for reasons linked to overexploitation and organised crime.
Because of their way of life and their number, these communities are key not only to changing economic and human development in many countries, but also to developing new approaches to sustainable economic development, the fight against environmental crime and climate change, taking into account the collaboration between civil society, private companies with corporate social responsibility and the State.
Economic development vs. protection of natural resources
At this point, it is necessary to highlight the dichotomy between, on the one hand, excessive economic development at any cost; and, on the other, protection of natural resources. It should be noted that, in part, the increase in illegal extraction of raw materials and deforestation to create of large areas of animal pasture and plantations has been caused by an unbridled increase consumption by humans.
We have to acknowledge that there are organised criminal groups behind these crimes because there is a specific demand in this regard. Voluntarily or involuntarily. Whether or not the demand is aware of the connection between violence and crime.
It is clear that all countries and societies in the world have the right, but not the obligation, to economic, cultural, and intellectual development. However, as the impact of climate change is more than evident, we must consider the need to change an unbridled system of economic growth, that allows the emergence of numerous crimes which will end up contributing to climate change and growing violence in countries.
Therefore, it is necessary to balance frenetic human consumption with the protection of the environment.
Thematic Manager of the Police Cooperation Component of EL PAcCTO