Environmental crime pays in biodiversity rich countries

Less than one percent of environmental crimes in ecologically important areas result in punishments or sanctions, a shock study released by Conservation International (CI) has revealed.

Environmental economists calculated in US dollars the risks and rewards of breaking environmental laws as part of the report, which showed that poor enforcement systems were generating a “shockingly insufficient deterrent to illegal activity in critical biodiversity areas”.

For instance, in the Indonesian Papua Province, the profits to be reaped by a shipload of illegal timber totalled at around US $92,000. The deterrent for dealing in illegal timber, however, amounted to just US $6.47, making the reward over 14,000 times greater than the risk.

The international study examined the enforcement of laws against illegal logging, fishing and wildlife trading in four biodiversity hotspots – Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines – and provided the first quantitative study of just how poor that enforcement was in these ecologically rich countries.

In Brazil, for example, illegal loggers were making around US $75 for each tree that they harvested, and faced a fine of US $6.44. Poachers in Mexico’s Selva Maya Forest would be fined US $5.66 if they were caught, but would bring home about US $191.57 from just one day’s hunting.

Fishing illegally in the Philippines with environmentally damaging cyanide and dynamite holds a deterrent of only nine US cents, but fishermen can make up to US $70.57 from one trip trawling the Calamianes Islands.

Even in cases where the fines were higher, the study showed that the chances of being arrested, prosecuted or convicted were extremely low, and that so few lawbreakers actually had to pay a fine that the whole system was virtually deemed negligible.

“Enforcement systems in these countries work so poorly that the profits to commercial-scale illegal activity far exceed any potential penalty for breaking an environmental law,” co-author of the study and technical director of CI’s Enforcement Initiative Anita Akella stated. “The returns are tremendous, so it’s not surprising that illegal environmental activity continues to be rampant.”

The study identifies improving detection methods as a key solution, using more advanced tools like satellites to locate the activities of environmental criminals, but it also recognised that detection alone was not enough to deter them.

Co-author of the study and deputy director of CI’s Center for Conservation and Government, Jim Cannon pointed out that improving compliance was a big challenge.

“We need to reduce the drivers of illegal activities, for instance by creating income alternatives and reforming unjust laws, but we also need stronger enforcement,” he said. “Fortunately rapid improvements can be made throughout the system – the key is to target enforcement resources better.”

He added that enforcement systems were only as strong as their weakest link, and that the CI’s study showed just how weak many of those links were.

By Jane Kettle

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