Environmental Crime – Challenges and Propositions

Environmental crimes can be broadly defined as unlawful acts that directly harm the environment. Today the most common forms of environmental crime include the illegal trade in wildlife and exploitation of wild fauna and flora; smuggling of ozone depleting substances; illicit waste disposal and its trade; unregulated and unreported fishing; and illegal logging and trade in stolen timber. Environmental crime is one of the most lucrative business sectors operated by both individuals and organised crime syndicates. It can be as financially rewarding as illegal drug trafficking, but has relatively low risks of detection with much lower levels of sanctions, providing a powerful incentive for malicious perpetrators.


Law enforcement authorities are confronted with a series of challenges that prevents a response commensurate with the magnitude and atrocity of this crime type. Some crucial bottlenecks need to be appropriately addressed to reach solutions.

First, international and national legislation is all too often inadequate or complex. Regarding the protection of endangered species, a large number of instruments are in force. The main piece of international legislation draws from the CITES Convention. In addition, the EU provides additional legislation for protection, including the ‘Birds Directive’ and the ‘Habitats Directive’, which are the mainstay of European nature conservation policy. The more the number of instruments, the more complicated it gets for practitioners at the national level. In the case of waste, there are ambiguities in the definition of waste and in the distinction between waste and used goods both in international and EU legislation, leading to diverse interpretations. Moreover, national laws vary and what is considered illegal in the sending country may be considered legal in the recipient country – or, vice versa.

Second, there is a paucity of specialist knowledge, financial and human resources to carry out inspections. The staff is often poorly trained for intelligence-led detection and investigation. To cite an example, in the case of e-waste, officers are not always properly trained to distinguish between used equipment and waste and have difficulty in proving the illegal nature of the shipment because e-waste is often mixed with functional goods.  Generally speaking, prosecutors and judges are not adequately informed about environmental crimes and remain insensitive to this category of violations that is widely perceived as “victimless”.

Third, in many countries, a large range of agencies is involved in countering illegal trade, with each authority holding only partial information. Such a division of intelligence is a barrier to proactive control, including targeted inspections. A lack of coordination between administrative bodies can also lead to a situation where the public prosecutor does not receive the proper and necessary information for successful prosecution. There is also limited coordination and intelligence sharing at the international level, which is crucial due to the transboundary nature of environmental crime. Weaknesses in international information sharing currently contribute to the common practice of “port hopping”, whereby offenders, once detected at one port, simply move their operations to another port, where the authorities are unaware of their past offences.

Fourth, corruption is a gnawing issue as is economic sustenance. Driven by greed and avarice, government and corporate officials perceive this an easy option to cash in. Members of poor local communities are frequently lured with money to work for the criminal gangs.

Currently, there is an element of institutional reticence with regard to environmental crime, possibly because of a fundamental lack of awareness of the scale of the problem, or the responses needed to counter it. Criminals are usually well- aware of the weaknesses in legislation and enforcement efforts that prevent an effective response and exploit these to their own gain. They are early adopters of new technologies and are getting better at evading intervention, diversifying their contraband and geographies, and becoming more difficult to monitor.

Environmental crime needs to be viewed as a serious crime area, given higher priority and allocated appropriate monetary and human resources, especially when it contains cross-border elements. National and international cooperation is a key requirement in the form of intelligence exchange, mutual assistance, and best practice sharing. Reducing the complexity of legislation, harmonising definitions and standardising their interpretations are also essential. More training and information sessions for investigators and prosecutors and judges are important. The problem of corruption should be tackled by introducing anti-corruption measures and promoting good governance at all levels. Finally, law enforcement is not just about clamping down, but also a question of providing alternative livelihoods that prevent local populations from being a party to environmental offences. Environmental violations are rampant and a well-coordinated and coherent global response is required to tackle this formidable crime.


30.6.2017, CBRA Blog by Dr. Sangeeta Mohanty