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What on Earth?

The vicious cycle of poverty, crime and environmental degradation


Bangkok (Thailand), 11 November 2011
- The birth of the 7th billion citizen of the planet and the recent launch of the United Nations Development Programme's 2011 Human Development Report offer a timely opportunity to reflect on the existing relationships between economic and population growth, social justice and environmental sustainability.

While the world has witnessed an unprecedented economic growth in the last decades, income distribution has worsened, gender imbalances have not improved and environmental destruction has accelerated. The challenges welcoming Baby 7 billion are enormous: 40% of land degraded due to over-exploitation; a 50% drop in land productivity; 70-85% of water consumption linked to agriculture; and 50% of the world's species threatened with the fastest man-made mass extinction ever.

Transnational Organized Crime plays a significant - and often overlooked - role in the environmental degradations preventing sustainable growth. Despite improvements in the creation and enforcement of laws to conserve natural resources, unscrupulous criminal actors profit from a business environment where the demand for natural resources keeps growing while the supply keeps diminishing. Borders do not represent an obstacle, as criminals successfully trade across continents in highly sophisticated ways, as in the case of ivory trade linking Africa to Asia. The result? Prices inexorably grow - as do illicit profits, violence, corruption, money laundering - creating a degraded environment for all. But most importantly, any attempt to bring transparency, integrity and good practices in the management of natural resources is hijacked by the easy profits realized by the illegal exploitation of those resources.

To address the multifaceted challenges posed by environmental crime, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers support to Governments for anti-corruption, law enforcement and sustainable livelihoods. These three interlinked elements are crucial if we are to protect the invaluable natural resources that ensure long run, sustainable growth and prosperity.

UNODC in East Asia and the Pacific assists Indonesia to fight illegal logging and corruption. It also works with the Greater Mekong Sub-region countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Viet Nam to counter the trade of natural resources at land crossings. New projects coming online aim to prevent deforestation and drug production in Cambodia, and to create sustainable livelihood for forest communities in Myanmar and Lao PDR.

Ensuring sustainable livelihoods is critical to fighting environmental degradation. In fact, the projected increase of world food prices by 30-50% will especially affect the 1.3 billion (mostly poor) people involved in agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting. Being highly dependent on natural resources to build their livelihoods, rural communities will be more severely hit by both rising food prices and the constant depletion of natural resources. Women also will be disproportionally affected as they tend to have fewer occupational options.

The first stage of the criminal supply-chain often includes the recruitment of rural communities to identify, harvest and transport the most precious and rare natural resources including valuable species of wildlife, fish and timber even in the most inaccessible settings. This results in the indiscriminate clearing of rare wildlife species, such as tigers, rhinos but also less popular reptiles, turtles and fish species. Once the harvested resources are trafficked to far-away rich markets, local communities are left with temporary, small monetary returns and massive losses of natural capital. This leads to further poverty, food insecurity and natural disasters (including floods and landslides in case of illegal logging).

A case in point is the indiscriminate harvesting of the protected tree Mreas Prov Phnom on the Cardamom mountains in Cambodia: Criminal groups recruit local villagers to fell this rare and protected species to extract Safrole-rich oils that will be then sold to drug labs to produce ecstasy. This criminal activity has devastating consequences for both the environment and for local people who must live in deforestated areas and suffer the health problems, criminal penalties and food insecurity due to increased illicit drug production (learn more about the SAFROLE project in Cambodia).

To untangle the complex web of legal and illegal trade of timber, wildlife, fish, e-waste and ozone-depleting substances, UNODC assists Governments to create rule of law-based societies with the effective law enforcement, credible penalties and just legal systems necessary to contain environmental crime and to promote equitable development.

The long struggle to achieve sustainable development requires immediate actions in the justice system. UNODC stands ready to assist Governments in such an endeavour.