Environment crime now high on the world agenda


The illegal international trade in environmentally sensitive items such as ozone depleting substances, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste and endangered species is a serious problem with global impact.

This scourge which affects all countries threatens human health, deteriorates the environment and results in revenue loss for governments in some cases.

In fact, the illegal trade in wildlife can be as profitable as dealing in narcotics. Shawls made from the wool of Tibetan antelope - the sale of which is completely illegal - are sold for up to €20,000 Euros, while caviar from endangered sturgeon approaches €8,000 per kilo on the retail market. Added to this is the alarming rise in virulent wildlife diseases, such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and avian influenza that cross species lines to infect humans and endanger public health.

Ozone depleting substances (ODS), such as those used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, not only destroy the earth's protective shield (the stratospheric ozone layer), but, if released into the atmosphere, also contribute to climate change since they are also powerful greenhouse gases. Illegal trade in ODS has become a global phenomenon.

Toxic waste also causes long-term poisoning of soil and water, affecting people's health and living conditions, sometimes irreversibly. Unscrupulous waste trade has become a serious concern since the 1980s and has now become a criminal offence under the Basel Convention on the 'Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal'. The waste may pass through several countries before reaching its final destination, making it more difficult to pinpoint responsibilities.

UNEP estimated that some 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste is generated worldwide annually and this is steadily growing each year. 70% of this waste is dumped in developing countries in Asia and Africa.

Violations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also continue to worry environmentalists as more and more fauna and flora face pressures that could lead to their extinction - a real loss to mankind's animal and floral kingdoms.

Customs administrations have, in the last few years, reported more than 9800 CITES and 220 hazardous waste seizures, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, increasing evidence has shown that organised crime groups are involved in this dirty business. The international community is now mobilised more than ever to fight against this unscrupulous trade.

During a high level meeting at WCO headquarters recently on enforcement issues, delegates representing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Customs administrations, other international organisations and stakeholders who have an interest in the environment, called for an urgent and concerted global response to tackle ever-increasing environment crime. Participants agreed on an Action Plan to fight against environment crime.

The Plan foresees the promotion of environment crime as one of the priorities for Customs administrations, the training of Customs officers to improve their detection techniques given their frontline position at borders, the creation of specialised units at Customs offices to deal with this form of crime and enhancing internatinal co-operation and information exchange.

In this regard, the WCO will use its global communication tool, the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), for realtime information exchange. The CEN will enable Customs officers worldwide to be alerted quickly and facilitate their immediate response to any illegal trafficking of environmentally sensitive goods.

To ensure effective international co-operation against environment crime, the WCO and UNEP signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2003 and are also partners in the Green Customs Initiative - dedicated to training and building the capacity of Customs officials across the globe.

Both organisations are committed to strengthening and enhancing their partnership, which is aimed at protecting the environment through more effective enforcement of environment crime.