Organized Crime and The Environment Research Paper

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Interpol demands crackdown on “serious and organised” eco crime. (Johnson 2012:1)

It has been recognized for some time that the liberalization of trade policies has had deleterious impacts on the world’s natural environment. The rapid expansion of globalized goods and services continues to create a human footprint with long-lasting environmental consequences (White 2010). It is a footprint that represents rapid human activity and with it has come new commercial opportunities, not only for global businesses but also for organized criminal networks. Both the acceleration and by-products of global trade have created new markets as well as underground economies. As the opening quotation reveals, transnational environmental crime must become a policing priority as organized criminal networks continue to exploit the environment with unfrequented profits (cf. Banks 2008). Organized crime syndicates reportedly earn between US$20 and 30 billion from environmental crimes (Clarke 2011). Such earnings come at substantial social, economic, and environmental expense for communities, their livelihoods, and habitats. Indeed, organized environmental crime is identified by the UN as a key factor in the impoverishment, displacement, and violent conflicts of millions of people, notably in developing societies (UNODC 2009). The theft of biodiversity and the demise of animal species and habitats have resulted not only in financial loss but in an increase in “environmental refugees,” people dislocated and forced to migrate due to loss of livelihoods. This research paper will explore the links between organized crime and the environment and examine the regulatory and environmentalist responses to this growing issue of global concern.

Key Issues And Controversies

Defining Organized Environmental Crime

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Institute (UNICRI) has established a now widely used categorization of organized environmental crime based on various international protocols and multilateral agreements. Other organizations including Interpol, the UN Environment Programme, and G8 also adopt the following five key areas when referring to transnational and organized environmental crime. The areas are the illegal trade in endangered species and wildlife; the illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances; illegal dumping of waste and hazardous substances; illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; and illegal logging and trade in protected woodlands (see Hayman and Brack 2002:5).

Illegal Trade In Flora And Fauna

It is widely recognized that organized environmental crime syndicates, motivated by substantial financial rewards, continue to flourish and expand in disadvantaged societies with porous borders where corruption is widespread and regulation poor (UNODC 2009). Emerging international laws and environmental policing efforts are gradually beginning to engage with issues inextricably linked to legitimate global trade. The impacts of these emerging markets continue to decimate flora and fauna while having widespread impacts on human populations. For example, the CITES protects about 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants, yet 4,000

African elephants per year continue to be killed for illicit trade (Interpol 2011). Banks et al. (2008:7) identify that since the 1990s, “80 % of timber coming out of Indonesia was illegal, and the government has estimated that it costs the nation US$4 billion a year.” In Thailand and the Malaysian peninsula, recent reports identify that the Sumatran rhinoceros has become extinct due to organized criminal poaching. Moreover, the numbers of tigers, elephants, saiga antelopes, and anteaters have become “dangerously low” (Viegas 2011). In the United States, illegal trafficking in wildlife continues to accelerate at an alarming rate and has caused the State Department to establish a Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking comprising government, protest groups, and corporate partners to address an industry of organized crime (US State Department 2011). The Wildlife Conservation Society in New York continues to emphasize the serious-ness of the issue stating “we are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to an entirely new type of trade driven by criminalised syndicates, and the world is not yet taking it seriously” (Coghlan 2011). The situation is equally serious across the Atlantic. During 2004 alone, European Union officials reportedly made 7,000 seizures involving “more than 3.5 million wildlife specimens that were prohibited from being traded” (WWF 2011:1).

Endangered Species International concludes that “despite international laws, animal body parts of protected species are traded around the world. For example, body parts of hawksbill turtle shells, shahtoosh shawls from the Tibetan antelope, and furs from rare otters in south east Asia are found in both black and open markets. Of the estimated 350 million animals and plants being traded worldwide every year, it is believed that 25 % is carried out illegally” (ESI 2011:1). The prices for exotic and protected species vary on the black market from tens of thousands of dollars for a macaw, to just a few dollars for a giant cockroach (PETA 2011). Recent seizures in Vietnam near the Chinese border revealed over a 1,000 t of African elephant ivory smuggled in bundles of cloth (Traffic 2011). There are numerous other examples of declines or extinction of native fauna from organized illegal activity. As Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has stated,

People are profiting from the destruction of our planet, by dumping hazardous waste, illegal logging, or the theft of bio-assets. This crime not only damages the eco-system, it impoverishes so many countries where pollution, deforestation and population displacement trigger conflict.. .. (Costa 2008)

While the social, economic, and political conditions of “origin nations” undoubtedly facilitate organized environmental crime, issues of demand and global trade are noticeably absent from international discourse. Bricknall (2010:7) has previously noted that EU countries take a “soft approach” with organized environmental crime, often because the perpetrators, or those involved, are reputable business personnel engaging in essential trade. She concluded, “.. .enforcement agencies thus are not confronted with the classical “bad guys” but … with often highly respected players of economic life.” For many, globalization has provided the context for the “easy passage of illegal goods.”

Organized environmental crime continues to flourish because of trade and market demand. Countries such as the United Kingdom, which actively promote international environmental treaties to preserve and protect natural heritage, provide the markets for organized crime syndicates to dispose of their illegal merchandise. For example, Britain is the world’s third largest importer of illegally logged timber. Up to 3.2 million cubic meters of timber sold in the UK and used for household furniture or garden woodchip is stolen from the Amazon rainforest and other protected habitats, and comprises a £700 million per year British industry. Moreover, imported fish is worth £4–9 billion to Britain per annum. By conservative estimates, more than 12,000 t per annum originates from illegal fishing in the offshore waters of poor countries. This illegal fishing decimates the local industry and food supply of debt-stricken countries in Western Africa while destroying marine biology. Yet, unregistered pirate vessels enter British ports unchecked, and the stolen fish are sold at London markets without question (Walters 2012).

Internationally recognized businesses often facilitate the commercial trade in illegal and endangered species. The Internet provider “Yahoo” has reportedly been providing shopping sites in Japan for the sale of more than 130 t of endangered Icelandic whale (EIA 2011). Moreover, environmental activists have lobbied eBay to ban the sale of endangered species after 7,000 wildlife products were identified on 183 websites across 11 countries (IFAW 2011).

Illegal Disposal Of Waste

Not only have endangered and protected species of flora and fauna proved lucrative for crime syndicates, but so has the illegal disposal of waste. The excesses of globalized consumption and capitalism continue to produce harmful wastes that pollute and contaminate the environment. As mentioned above, the dumping and illegal transport of various kinds of hazardous waste is widely recognized by international law as an environmental crime. However, for decades, the control and enforcement of the illegal movement in waste has proved inadequate as Rebovich (1992:125) notes,

…it has been said that illegal hazardous waste disposal is very much like one long game of hot potato. The idea is to make as much profit as you can by being the temporary possessor of the hot potato before unloading it on some other person, organization, or place. In the end, the final recipient is the loser.

The “losers” in the illegal movement of waste are most often the poor and vulnerable. There continues to exist within political and policing circles, noticeably across Europe, complacency, and lack of awareness regarding the seriousness of illegal waste disposal and its links to organized crime. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Italy, which is worth exploring further here in some detail to understand organized environmental crime and its links with global trade and national governance.

Throughout the 1990s, international headlines reported 11 million tons of industrial waste unaccounted for and large amounts of toxic waste dumped in Italy in what came to be known as acts of the “ecomafia.” Mafia-related enterprises were reported to be monopolizing waste disposal contracts from industries producing toxic residues and illegally dumping the pollutants in various areas of the Italian countryside (Ruggierio 1996). Furthermore, the mafia or “rubbish tzars” (Ruggiero and South 2010) were bidding for, and successfully obtaining, provincial contracts to clean up the very environmental mess they themselves had created. This sort of organized criminal activity is not new. Block and Scarpetti (1985) documented the ways in which the mafia in the USA monopolized the solid waste management business, eliminated industry competition, bribed officials, and routinely illegally disposed of toxic waste in the New York and New Jersey region. Interestingly, they note how the US Environment Protection Agency was obstructive in regulating toxic waste. Indeed, Szasz (1986) argues that “lax implementation and enforcement” were key factors in the expansion of organized crime monopolies over waste management contracts and the concomitant illegal activity – an insight pertinent to southern Italy’s procurement of waste contracts and lack of regulatory oversight.

Italy continues to hold the worst environmental infringement record in the EU. In early 2002, a total of 125 breaches of EU environmental directives were lodged against the Italian authorities with some cases referred to the European Court of Justice.

In December 2006, the European Parliament identified that 60 environmental infringement notices remained outstanding against the Italian government (the highest in Europe), mainly for breaches of waste management. In 2009, the European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas stated “EU environmental law aims to prevent damage to the environment and minimise health risks to European citizens. To ensure its citizens are provided the utmost protection I urge Italy to quickly put right the shortcomings of certain of its environmental laws in line with those of the EU” (Europa 2009:1). Italy has yet to implement seven different EU environmental directives relating to water, air, soil, waste, and nature protection, and its legal regimes are often severely criticized for not harmonizing with EU law. The European Commission is pursuing legal action against the Italian government for failing to implement environmental directives into national law.

One of the reasons for Italy’s noncompliance with EU environmental regulations is, as mentioned above, the widespread organized criminal activity of the “ecomafia.” As South (2010:234) rightly points out, the word “ecomafia” first coined by the environmental group Legambiente is now widely accepted in Italian society to mean “organised criminal networks that profit from illegally disposing of commercial, industrial and radioactive waste.” Ecomafia is big business in Italy, its worth being estimated at 20.8 billion Euro in 2008 (Legambiente 2009). Almost all criminal activities occur in the mafia strongholds of Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia. In this area alone, 31 million tons of domestic and commercial waste simply “disappeared” in 2008, dumped at sea or in local waterways. More recently, mafia groups have taken to illegally burying waste in southern Italy and then rapidly building housing estates on top. Between 2008 and 2010, 17,000 houses were illegally built on waste dumps, and 10,000 forest fires were mafia related (Legambiente 2010). The impacts of organized environmental crime in Italy also have a global reach. In 2008, it was widely reported that mozzarella cheese exported from Campania contained high levels of dioxins, the result of dairies contaminated by the illegal disposal of toxic waste (Walters 2012).

Italy’s long-standing record of environmental noncompliance combined with the prolific illegalities of the ecomafia that continue to generate media headlines has necessitated a political response. Within the Carabinieri (reputedly Italy’s most elite law enforcement body) has emerged a specialist policing unit to tackle environmental crime. It should be noted that Italy has a complex structure of state policing and law enforcement. There are eight separate law enforcement agencies, all combining to govern and enforce federal, provincial, and municipal law across Italy (Walters 2012).

The creation of a specialist unit within an existing police force to tackle corporate environmental crime is a first in Europe. Yet, the resources and police personnel devoted to the initiative are minuscule. Moreover, it is the provinces in the north of Italy that have witnessed the greatest political and municipal “buy-in,” while the troubled areas of the south continue to struggle for interagency collaboration against a culture of suspicion and official corruption.

Emerging from Italy’s eco-policing, which is still in its early days, is a story of how environmental movements can identify and target organized crime, mobilize political opinion, involve local government, and raise public awareness. In Italy, organized environmental crime is not being addressed or tackled by senior political officials, government administrators, or policing agencies; they all play a part, but the real difference is being made through Legambiente. Established in 1980, Legambiente is a left-wing environmental activist organization with 115,000 active members across 45 offices in Italy. With the use of its technologies, databases, and local intelligence, Legambiente has been instrumental in tightening waste disposal regulations and in the prosecution of mafia personnel. In a similar fashion to the ecomafia having a public identity in Italy, Legambiente is widely thought of as the “ecopolice.” However, Italy’s four biggest mafia groups, namely, the “Ndrangheta” in Calabria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, and the Neapolitan Camorra and the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, are so embedded in the social and economic fabric of Italian society, in that organized criminal activity accounts for 7 % of the country’s gross domestic product (Phillips 2008) with the ecomafia competing among themselves for waste management contracts, amidst poor and corrupt regulation. Recent endeavors by Legambiente and its allies to highlight the extent of corruption in Italy’s south has intensified EU focus on what has been dubbed the “Naples rubbish crisis” where 7,200 t of rubbish is accumulating every day in the Campania region (Ruggiero and South 2010; Walters 2012).

International Perspectives

The severity of organized environmental crime has a long history. Notably, it was environmental groups in the mid-1970s that raised awareness of this activity, and it is green and social movements that are central to current efforts of policing and regulation (Block 2002). Environmental activism plays a major role alongside international instruments in combating organized environmental crime (White 2010). Such initiatives include the Interpol Environmental Crime Committee which focuses on training, data collection, and enforcement related to pollution and wildlife crimes and implements an “intelligence-led policing” model which emphasizes “operational partnerships.” In 2010, during the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity, Interpol’s General Assembly passed a resolution that would see 188 national law enforcement agencies agreeing to collaborate with organizations such as the World Bank and environmental movements, an initiative that promises a substantial increase in policing resources to reduce organized environmental crime (Interpol 2011). In 2007, countries signatory to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals agreed to “ensure environmental stability,” through, inter alia, targeting and preventing organized environmental crime (United Nations 2007). The proceeds of organized environmental crime are laundered through legitimate commercial activities. As a result, the Financial Action Task Force now officially recognized environmental crime as explicitly associated with money laundering. The Asian Regional Partners Forum on Combating Environmental Crime (ARPEC) was set up in 2005 and continues to play an active role in coordinating enforcement endeavors in the Asia Pacific region, an area renowned for illicit trade in wildlife. One important initiative, the Partnership Against Transnational Crime through Regional Organized Law Enforcement, has witnessed significant increases in wildlife seizures via coordinated policing and information exchange. Finally, in July 2011, eight countries signatory to the Lusaka Agreement on Co-operative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora (promoted by wildlife law enforcement officers from eight Eastern and Southern African countries) met to increase enforcement resources to prevent wildlife crime (Walters 2012).

In a similar fashion to the success of citizen involvement in environmental activism in the historically progressive regulation of environmental crime in the United States (Clifford and Edwards 2012), the above international approaches expressly rely upon organizations such as Greenpeace, Endangered Species International, Environmental Investigation Agency, Environmental Justice Foundation, Legambiente, and the World Wide Fund for Nature to combat global organized environmental crime. Environmental movements are becoming central in the identification, detection, and prevention of environmental crime. Their resources, technologies, databases, and personnel are increasingly utilized by law enforcement agencies to police, regulate, and prosecute organized environmental crime. Here, environmental activism, through technology and networks of action, local alliances, as well as appeals to citizens and officials, elevates the social movement to a reliable and reputable status that is inculcated into government and regulatory structures. Environmental activism becomes not mere representative democracy but participatory democracy with both a visible presence and impact. As such, with public and political integration, it becomes a new and important form of environmental governance. The momentum created by environmental movements is a source of mobilized power, emerging from alliances with local institutions of governance, and knowledges, that have come to be relied upon as accepted and trusted regimes of truth – in turn becoming the sources of official discourse.

Future Directions

Within criminological studies, debates about organized environmental crime have emerged within discourses on state and corporate crime or “crimes of the powerful” and within the rapidly expanding area of “green criminology” (South 1998; South and Bierne 2006). South (2010:242) argues that the growing phenomenon of green crime is a product of a late-modern risk society. As a result, he identifies emerging environmental harms and injustices as requiring “a new academic way of looking at the world but also a new global politics.” This includes an intellectual narrative that moves “beyond the narrow boundaries of traditional criminology and draws together political and practical action to shape public policy” (South 2010:242). This interdisciplinary approach combined with environmental activism and public policy has facilitated a green criminological perspective with three dimensions: first, scholarship that conceptualizes environmental crime; second, that devoted to exploring and uncovering various types of environmental crimes; and finally, a commitment to environmental policing and enforcement.

A substantial amount of green criminological scholarship seeks to put issues of environmental harm on the academic, political, and public radar. As this research paper argues, too often when actions violate international environmental agreements or domestic laws they are referred to as “breaches” or “offenses” and not crimes. From a purely legal perspective, this is best explained by the fact that environmental offenses are often not contained within either international or municipal criminal law. As such, they are dealt with as administrative offenses and prosecuted in civil jurisdictions. Such offenses only become issues for the criminal courts when offenders fail to comply with a court sanction and are subsequently referred to a criminal court. While the language of ecocrime is used (most often by activists and NGOs), it is not expressed in such terms at international law and only in reaction to antisocial behavior within domestic law. Eco-crime is an area requiring new conceptions of offending and regulatory responses within this “new academic way of thinking and within a new global politics” (South 2010:242).

Organized environmental crime often occurs within, and is intrinsically linked, to the free market policies of state and corporate trade. For Westra (2004:309), acts by governments and corporations in pursuit of free trade that deliberatively destroys and damages biodiversity are “attacks on the human person” that deprive civilians (notably the poor) from the social, cultural, and economic benefits of their environment. As a result, eco-crime is an act of violence and should be viewed as a human rights violation as citizens are deprived of freedoms and liberties. As Halsey and White (1998) have noted, “environmental harm” is often publicly and politically accepted as necessary for maintaining human well-being. To use a Gramscian analysis, capital accumulation and the prominence of trade are preserved through ideologies of “necessity.” There is a cultural hegemony that underpins the imperatives of trade that come about through consensus or “common sense values” that cannot be undermined. As a result, it is essential to apply a political economy analysis to understand the interconnectedness between organized environmental crime and legitimate global trade.

To understand the complexities of organized environmental crime require an examination of the networks of corruption that facilitate criminal markets (Elliot 2009). Lorraine Elliott asserts that addressing this expanding and global enterprise requires “joined-up thinking” across various transnational government and nongovernment agencies. Notwithstanding the importance of this form of network analysis, it is must be recognized that policies of free trade governed by principles of market regulation provide the contexts in which organized environmental crime may flourish. The role of green criminologists must be to unpack and disentangle the ways that policies and practices of legitimate trade facilitate the opportunities and activities of organized environmental criminal networks.


This research paper concludes that the natural environment continues to provide immense profits for organized criminal networks while decimating protected species. Moreover, it is the world’s poorest and most marginalized people most severely affected by the cultural, social, and economic consequences of transnational organized environmental crime. While trade remains an international priority within the landscapes of global economics and fiscal prosperity, organized environmental crime takes advantage of growing markets. The trade imperatives of globalized and liberal market economies provide the challenges backdrop and contexts for both domestic and international policing initiatives. On one level, policing resources are either unavailable or limited for eco-policing; at another level, a lack of political will ensure that regulation and enforcement remain a low priority. As a result, innovations in policing partnerships, which involve environmental activist groups, have an important role to play. Movements of environmental activism are emerging as the new front in the surveillance, regulation, and prosecution of organized environmental crime. Such voices must continue to be central to future green criminological perspectives that seek environmental, ecological, and species justice.


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