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Home / Resources / News / Environmental crimes

Environmental crimes

By Rosen Dimov
Environmental crimes in the broadest sense refer to any man-made harm (deliberate or careless act) caused to the surrounding nature. This includes diverse issues such as protection of endangered species, ozone layer depletion, earth and soil pollution and smuggling of nuclear materials. The most important international treaty on these matters is the Aarhus Convention of the United Nations. A major tool in the fight against organized environmental crime is the Convention`s pillar on access to justice. This means that the EU is to develop and enforce a set of measures against environmental crimes, which can enable individuals or communities to seek justice, especially against eco crimes of transnational nature.images (2)Having adopted the Aarhus Convention on a member-by-member basis, the EU as a joint body has acceded to the treaty, making it possible for natural persons (the EU citizens) as well as legal entities to seek justice within the struggle against environmental crimes. Suspensive effect (i.e. a remedy stopping the crime or the source of environmental damage) along with interim injunctions (i.e. a temporary sanction) may be implemented as a judicial relief to the injured parties. Nevertheless, this still leaves a room for escape for much more complex networks of organized crime that is interlinked with activities that are dangerous for the environment, which has come to be known as, eco mafia. Awareness about this issue is still limited as are the powers of the EU in contrasting it. While the mafias have quickly took full advantage of the European common market and made itself into a successful trans-European organization, the EU and civil society are still struggling to find a common approach to organized crime, especially when it comes to the area of waste management (toxic waste in particular).Some steps have been made by the EU in this direction but are still insufficient.. In January 2003 the Council adopted a Framework Decision on the protection of the environment through criminal law. In 2007, the EU Court ruled out to acknowledge the right of the Commission to require criminal sanctions for environmental damage, but it also reiterated that it does not have the authority to fix the type and level of these penalties. Harmonizing penal rules across Europe would be a necessary first step but more needs to be done.As the environment and its cycle know no borders, the effects of man-made pollution are another transnational phenomenon. There are multiple examples. The “mozzarella scandal” that spread around Europe in 2007 was a consequence of ecomafias. The industrial toxic waste that has been buried in Campania by the Camorra for decades had produced contaminated grass, and therefore contaminated cow milk. Tons of Mozzarellas eaten around Europe had to be withdrawn for the market.

Managing waste is an issue that every local and national authority has to deal with. A large network of ecomafias acting in all Europe have taken advantage from the single market and Schengen to make waste disposal a communitarian activity. Local organized crime groups find legal and illegal landfills in which to dispose of the waste by bribing or threatening local officials. The extended network moves the waste from country to country, from North to South and from West to East.

While the national authorities are hesitant or reluctant to enforce their obligations for pursuit of environmental crimes under the humble EU environmental legislation, the eco mafia has already become trans-national. Provided that the member states individually are unable to cope with organized environmental criminality and they are unwilling to confer a larger degree of their national sovereignty to European institutions, the fight has yielded modest results. A first step would be to use the existing tools more efficiently. The meaning and effect of EU instruments in the criminal law domain such as the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters between the member states of the European Union, European Arrest Warrant, the Framework Directive on Confiscation Orders could be extended much wider in the field of environmental crimes.

By the same token, EU agencies such as Eurojust, Europol, the European Prosecutor’s Office could focus more on nature-related wrongdoing in their activities. Cooperation among member states shall be fostered, too. Until then, the current picture of environmental crimes in Europe largely resembles the image in the philosophical mind of Rousseau put forward in his breath-taking piece, Discourse on Inequality (1754), with the EU member states as our contemporary stag-hunters.

Every hunter in the stag hunt must remain faithful to his post. But if a rabbit happened to pass within the reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without any scruple.

To find out more about this topic, you can read some of these articles or check out some of these videos:

  • Anesi, C., Rubino, G. and Reuter D. (2011) Toxic Europe: A documentary on the mechanisms and the flows of the illegal hazardous waste trafficking in Europe Trailers available hereand here
  • GreenPeace (2000) A fifteen year toxic scandal: Italian Hazardous Waste in Sinop and Samsun, Turkey Available here
  • McCarthy, M. and Philips, J. (2008) Italy’s toxic waste crisis, the Mafia – and the scandal of Europe’s mozzarella The Independent Available here
  • Colombo, F. (2011) Mafia dominates garbage industry  Tierramerica Available here
  • Mafia Today (2011) Mafia earning €20bn from dumping toxic waste Available here
  • Ciotti, S. (2008) The dangerous and toxic waste management and the organized crime: from exploitation to international health emergency Available here
  • Interpol  (2007) Electronic waste and organized crime: assessing the links Available here
  • Vernetti, G. and Ghia, R. For Flare Netowrk (2011) Toxic Televisions: organised crime and electronic waste in the UK Available here
  • Legambiente (2003) The illegal trafficking in illegal waste in Italy and Spain Available here
  • Beken, T. (2007) The European Waste Industry and Crime Vulnerabilities Available here
  • Anesi, C. and Rubino, G. (2010) The bluff of the [un]solved waste emergency Available here
  • Emiliano Mellino’sradio interviewto WasteEurope on toxic waste (2010)