Putting Environmental Crimes on the Defense and Security Agenda

Putting Environmental Crimes on the Defense and Security Agenda
Photo: Baraka the blind rhinoceros, Sweetwaters National Park, Kenya, March 10, 2013 (photo by Flickr user kb_adventures licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).
Last month, amid nonstop coverage of the Ukrainian crisis and an onslaught of domestic U.S. issues, the New York Times published an editorial urging the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to comply with international obligations on illegal fishing. Why did the editorial board think this issue warranted ink? Part of the answer is that the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) trade in fish is no longer just a conservation and biodiversity challenge. Environmental crimes across the board today have significant consequences for countries’ development aspirations, in addition to global security implications. In this light, governments around the world need to sharpen their approach to fighting environmental criminals. As the New York Times pointed out, the take-home catch for illegal fishers every year is between 11 million and 26 million metric tons, which generates about $10 billion to $23.5 billion in revenue. This is bad news for conservation and biodiversity efforts, since 53 percent of the world’s fisheries are considered to be fully exploited and in danger of permanent depletion. It is also bad news for national economies, particularly those in developing nations, which account for 80 percent of the world’s total fish exports. Extensive IUU fishing significantly lowers government tax or export duty revenue. The IUU trade also converges with other illicit activities, such as drug trafficking. In addition, the International Labor Organization and the United Nations have discovered an alarmingly high rate of human trafficking occurs in tandem with this trade. In short, the IUU trade in fish is as much a security and development issue as it is a conservation and biodiversity challenge. Illegal logging practices around the world have similar negative implications across the security-development spectrum. As much as 30 percent of the global timber trade is illegal, and a 2012 World Bank report noted that an amazing 80 percent of Peru’s logging exports were estimated to have been harvested illegally. The illicit timber trade threatens protected forests and animal habitats worldwide, but it also drives down the price of timber on international markets, undercutting legal loggers and making it even more difficult for them to compete on the global market. In addition, according to the United Nations, timber exporters have been key participants in transporting arms in West and Central Africa, which in turn drives the illegal arms trade, crime and armed conflict. The environmental issue receiving the most attention recently is wildlife crime, including poaching and the illegal sale of ivory and rhino horn. In the past two years, about 60,000 elephants and more than 1,600 rhinos have been slaughtered by poachers, and this rapid rise in poaching threatens to decimate a number of states’ national treasures. This trend will significantly impact tourism, which in Africa is a $170 billion industry that employs millions of people. In addition, a mounting body of evidence shows that wildlife crime not only contributes to corruption, violence and local crime, but it also funds—directly and indirectly—transnational criminal and terrorist networks such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabab. In response to the greater awareness that environmental crime has not only conservation and biodiversity consequences, but also significant security implications, governments around the world are taking action. Earlier this year, the United States and the European Union issued new strategic approaches to wildlife trafficking with greater focus on law enforcement capacity-building as well as training and equipping the rangers that protect the animals. In February, the United Kingdom organized an international high-level summit, which resulted in over 40 countries signing a declaration vowing to allocate more resources and targeted actions to help manage the poaching crisis. Across the environmental spectrum, new resources and initiatives have sprung up, including the joint venture of the EU and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in their Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Program, providing funding and sharing information in order to address illegal logging. Interpol also recently announced Project SCALE, which aims to combat IUU fishing. While these are welcome developments, additional measures are necessary. First, a stronger emphasis on law enforcement and the training and equipping of rangers cannot become another burden that the conservation and biodiversity sectors must carry alone. Agencies in those sectors simply don’t have the resources, expertise or mandate for this type of work. Wildlife agencies tasked with protecting the environment in developing and emerging regions are also in dire need of training and equipment to conduct sufficient intelligence-gathering, a key component of thwarting widespread environmental criminal activity. These are missions for the security and military communities, and the competencies of those communities need to be leveraged. In this regard, the forthcoming U.S. National Defense Authorization Act could be a game-changer. Lawmakers should include language that broadly enables the Pentagon to engage on environmental crime issues in partnership with development agencies, as well as with biodiversity and conservation actors. Legislative measures should also include putting specific environmental crimes, like wildlife trafficking, on an equal footing with other serious transnational criminal activities that finance insurgencies and terrorist organizations. That way the U.S., along with partner governments and multilateral organizations, could levy sanctions and penalties on organizations and individuals participating in such illegal trade. Finally, in countries where environmental crime is most prevalent, there is a need to increase fines and sentencing to strengthen the deterrence against environmental crime. This past year, for example, Kenya adopted the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, which imposes stricter laws and penalties, and even created a new Wildlife Crimes Unit, whose prosecutors have already seen success in apprehending and bringing cases against poachers. Such measures need to be adopted more widely, with international support to develop the necessary skills and competencies. Today, environmental crime significantly overlaps with the shadowy underworld of the illegal trade in arms, humans and drugs as well as other illicit activities. Ultimately, effectively mitigating the growing and increasingly multifaceted environmental crime challenge will depend on our ability to find pragmatic ways to leverage strengths across the conservation, defense, security and development communities—before it is too late. Johan Bergenas is the deputy director of the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center. Jillian Foerster is a research intern with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative. Photo: Baraka the blind rhinoceros, Sweetwaters National Park, Kenya, March 10, 2013 (photo by Flickr user kb_adventures licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

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