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Home / Resources / News / What are environmental crimes?

What are environmental crimes?

by Cecilia Anesi and Giulio Rubino

download (1)‘Environmental Crime’ is a concept that relates to a broad range of criminal offences. From littering to waste trafficking, from wildlife smuggling to unregulated logging. Several offences fall under a same label, and although the gravity of crime changes, too often different criminal behaviours are put on the same line.

Littering is with no doubt a bad habit, smuggling of wild animals is a deplorable business, but when compared to the huge damages and turnovers of other environmental crimes such as waste trafficking or, more generally, from the intentional failing to implement environment protection protocols in industries around the world it is clear that we need to make some distinctions.

Waste trafficking in particular has become, over the last 20 years, one of the most profitable businesses of the organised crime groups. In Italy waste trafficking has replaced drug smuggling, becoming the major source of income for the Italian Mafia. By controlling transport companies and territories, Mafia managed to offer to companies in need cheap ways to get rid of their waste. According to Legambiente, one of the most important Italian environmentalist organisations, its turnover amounts to 20 billion euros per year.

Aside from being harmful to the environment and public health, waste trafficking represents a direct damage to our economic system.

The consequences of this phenomenon include a competitive disadvantage for all law-abiding companies that pay the real price of waste disposal; growth of the costs of public health, permanent loss of precious resources and the increase of Mafia infiltration in the clean market and in the social layers. The more companies look up for the services of the Mafias – and corporate responsibility issues should also be addressed– the more the Mafias become strong and embedded in our society. Indeed, they had to radically change their image, by leaving the old ‘hat and shotgun’ avatar, becoming white collars, reliable businessmen, rich entrepreneurs. They are in fact, especially in this time of financial crisis, the only business provider with liquidity.

Thus, financial differences become a crucial aspect to keep in mind when comparing different environmental crimes. It is not important the amount of money made out of it itself, but rather the feedback that the financial aspect of crime can give us back. The bigger the turnover, the bigger the business and the crime, and consequently, the bigger the damages to the environment.

This leads to another important consideration: while we, as a society, do not need wildlife smuggling, our production system seems to need waste trafficking, for the sake of competitiveness at least. While the first offence could be stopped by the good work of police forces, we would need to rethink a significant part of our economic system to efficiently stop the latter.

There is however one aspect that could possibly relate every different form of environmental crime: they link to a type of criminality that gets rarely denounced. Frans Geysels, head of the environmental department of Belgian Police and responsible for the Augias International Police Operation, when interviewed by us for the documentary ‘Toxic Europe’, explains it this way: “It’s a kind of crime that we, the Police, have to look for. If we don’t have the willingness to look for it, we will not discover it”.

Generally, the gravity of this type of crime is underestimated, and often its effects only appear years later. Therefore it is easy for the organised crime or for corporations to pollute the environment with no perceivable signs of it.  European and North American companies do in fact manage in the developing world factories that produce goods with no respect of the environment, but that can be easily done with no consequences since any third-world countries lack the legislation in matter of environment. A good example is Belarus, which has lately opened a new industrial developing area where foreign companies can open up and produce with no limits or checks on local pollution. Needless to say, in this way companies save lots of money acting in a deplorable, although sadly legal way.

A different strategy for tackling environmental crime is thus needed, since what happens in one part of the world will at one point bounce back to the other. The global criminal system that operates environmental crimes is made both by the financial world and by the Mafias, and more than ever the civil society needs to become globalised in fighting against it.