The environment provides the very foundation of sustainable development, our health, food security and our economies. Ecosystems provide clean water supply, clean air and secure food and ultimately both physical and mental wellbeing. Natural resources also provide livelihoods, jobs and revenues to governments that can be used for education, health care, development and sustainable business models. The role of the environment is recognized across the internationally agreed seventeen sustainable development goals adopted in 2015.
The slaughter of elephants and rhinos has raised awareness of the illegal trade in wildlife. We are facing mass extinctions and countries are losing iconic wildlife species. However, the scope and spectrum of this illegal trade has widened. Criminals now include in their trafficking portfolios waste, chemicals, ozone depleting substances, illegally caught seafood, timber and other forest products, as well as conflict minerals, including gold and diamonds.
The growth rate of these crimes is astonishing. The report that follows reveals for the first time that this new area of criminality has diversified and skyrocketed to become the world’s fourth largest crime sector in a few decades, growing at 2–3 times the pace of the global economy. INTERPOL and UNEP now estimate that natural resources worth as much as USD 91 billion to USD 258 billion annually are being stolen by criminals, depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities.
Environmental crime has impacts beyond those posed by regular criminality. It increases the fragility of an already brittle planet. The resulting vast losses to our planet rob future generations of wealth, health and wellbeing on an unprecedented scale. They also compromise our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
An additional by-product of environmental crime is that it undermines peace. It is not surprising that the UN Security Council has recognized the serious threat to security posed by environmental crime, with UN reports pointing to armed groups and potentially even terrorists sustained through the spoils of this rising criminal industry.
However, an enhanced law enforcement response can help address this worrying trend. There are significant examples worldwide of cross-sectoral efforts working to crack down on environmental crime and successfully restore wildlife, forests and ecosystems. Such collaboration, sharing and joining of efforts within and across borders, whether formal or informal, is our strongest weapon in fighting environmental crime.
But to meet the scale of this threat, a broad-ranging, targeted effort must be put forward so that peace and sustainable development can prevail.