Nation Other News 11 Feb 2019 The problem of envir ...

The problem of environmental crime

Published Feb 11, 2019, 6:17 am IST
Updated Feb 11, 2019, 6:18 am IST
Most of the attacks on our environment are human-made such as wars, explosions, chemical spills, etc.
In December 2016, the UN Environment and Interpol reported that abuse of the environment as the fourth most substantial criminal activity in the world.
 In December 2016, the UN Environment and Interpol reported that abuse of the environment as the fourth most substantial criminal activity in the world.

A 2004 American science-fiction film “The Day After Tomorrow” directed, and produced by Roland Emmerich, highlights what the world would look like under the continued onslaught of environmental crimes being perpetrated by humankind contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming. The film’s protagonist, a climatologist named Professor Jack Hall, discovers that due to global warming, the polar ice caps are melting, lowering ocean temperatures and triggering a massive climate shift causing many natural disasters and eventually a new ice age.

Similarly, our environment is being subjected to all sorts of attacks. As a result, people are experiencing both the subtle and stark effects of climate change. Most of the attacks on our environment are human-made such as wars, explosions, chemical spills, etc. At this point; if there could be one person who could qualify as the world’s worst environmental criminal, it would probably be Saddam Hussein.


During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein knew he would lose Kuwait and so he sent men to blow up Kuwaiti oil wells. Approximately 600 were set ablaze, and the towering infernos of fires burned for seven months plunging the Gulf in poisonous smoke, soot and ash.

Further on April 26, 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded. Another human-made environmental disaster resulting in a nuclear meltdown that sent massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, reportedly more than the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Again, around midnight on Dec. 2, 1984, another human-made accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in 45 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate escaping from the facility. Thousands died within hours.

Mostly due to such incidents, Interpol decided to fight environmental crime in 1992. Crimes committed in violation of environmental laws are called environmental crimes. Interpol, United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute have declared that any contravention to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) by way of illegal trade in endangered species, dumping and illicit business in hazardous waste in contravention of the 1989 Basel Convention , and smuggling of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) in violation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol would constitute environmental crimes.

It also recognises illegal logging, as well as unreported and unregulated fishing as environmental crimes. These crimes are liable for prosecution. Interpol renders possible international police cooperation and supports its member states in the effective enforcement of national and international environmental laws and treaties.

In India, offences against the environment are registered under five laws namely Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Forest Act, 1927.

As far as India is concerned, Uttar Pradesh topped the list of environment-related offences at (2,130 cases) in 2016, followed by Rajasthan (1,381 cases). Last year, the WHO list of 30 most polluted cities in the world, included Gwalior, Allahabad and Delhi.

In December 2016, the UN Environment and Interpol reported that abuse of the environment as the fourth most substantial criminal activity in the world. Exploitation of the environment was valued at US$ 258 billion, and it was projected to increase by five to seven per cent every year.

Environmental offences today, are the largest source of funding for non-state militias and terrorist organisations, contributing 38 per cent of their revenue, according to a new study released by Interpol and research workers.

For instance, in the Central African Republic, illegal logging of trees earns more money than narcotic trafficking, kidnappings, pillaging, extortion, human trafficking etc. The study mentioned that total cash flow from illegal timber, illegal fishing, wildlife trafficking and illegal mining to be between US$110 and US$281 billion annually, of which between US$22.8 and US$34 billion finds its way to extremists and organised criminal gangs such as al-Shabaab, DRC rebels and the Taliban.

The illegal wildlife trade a serious environmental crime is a significant contributor to species endangerment, often the second biggest threat to biodiversity after habitat loss. Illegal wildlife trade is widespread and constitutes one of the most illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons. Interpol has estimated the extent of the illegal wildlife trade between $10 billion and $20 billion per year.

Members of terrorist and criminal organisations illegally traffic in hundreds of millions of plants and animals to fund the purchase of weapons, finance civil conflicts, and launder money from illicit sources.  The appeal, in part, is the low risk of detection and punishment compared to drug trafficking. For example, a single Ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar (there are only 400 estimated left in the wild) can fetch up to the US $24,000.

Illegal logging to get wood for furniture or construction purposes -is another serious environmental crime. It is estimated that illegal logging on public land alone causes losses in assets and revenue more than 10 billion USD annually.

Although exact figures are difficult to calculate, estimates show that more than half of the logging that takes place globally is illegal, especially in open and vulnerable areas such as the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, the Russian Federation. The Amazon destruction -the largest rainforest in the world -speeded up in 2013 at a 29% rise in deforestation, according to the Brazilian government.

Illegal logging not only contributes to deforestation but also to global warming, loss of biodiversity, besides undermining the rule of law.

Illegal fishing, another major environmental crime contributes to over-extraction of fish stocks, disruption of marine food chains and threats to marine biodiversity. Illegal fishing together with shark finning has brought about cataclysmic harm to the marine ecosystem.

Shark finning is the practice of extracting the fins from sharks and casting away the remaining shark. The sharks are often still alive when discarded, but without their fins. Unable to swim effectively, they descend to the bottom of the ocean and die of suffocation.

Shark fin is the most profitable part of the shark; fishing vessels find that finning helps them increase their lucrativeness by enabling them to transport more fins as the shark meat is bulky to carry.

Roughly 73 million sharks die each year by finning, though some reckon that finning kills 100 million sharks each year. Many shark species have become endangered due to shark finning, including the threatened scalloped hammerhead shark. Shark fins are among the most expensive seafood products, commonly retailing at US$400 per kg.

Ozone depletion and the ozone hole have generated worldwide concern over increased cancer risks and other adverse effects. The leading cause of ozone depletion is manufactured chemicals, especially halocarbon refrigerants, solvents, propellants and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), HCFCs, etc. referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS).

These compounds are transported into the stratosphere by the winds where they release halogen atoms through photodissociation, which catalyse the breakdown of ozone into oxygen.

The adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which bans the production of CFCs, and other ODS is the most successful international environmental agreement to date as ozone hole is expected to reach pre-1980 levels by around 2075.

Dumping in rivers and aquifers is another severe environmental crime most often caused by irresponsible industries. Toxic wastes discharged from factories are being uncontrollably released into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes aquifers, etc.  In the Gangetic Plains of northern India and Bangladesh severe contamination of groundwater by arsenic is seen in  25% of water wells. Nitrates, fluorides, organic compounds and pathogens are often found contaminated in the underground water in India.

E-waste or electronic waste is created when an electronic product is discarded after the end of its useful life. In the developed countries up to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated every year. Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants which pollutes our earth.

In the 1970s, Love Canal, located near Niagara Falls in upstate New York, was a charming little blue-collar enclave with several hundred houses and a school. It just happened to sit atop 21,000 tons of toxic industrial waste disposed of by Hooker Chemical and Plastics Company in the 1940s.  After several years of unusually heavy rains, in 1976 the groundwater level started to rise, leaving house foundations overwhelmed with chemical waste. Gardens withered, pets died, and children suffered severe chemical burns on their hands and feet.

High rates of congenital disabilities, miscarriage, cancer, and blood disorders, together with other afflictions, were detected. When only 2 of 17 pregnant women in Love Canal gave birth to healthy babies, authorities evacuated the area in grave and imminent peril.

Surveys indicated pollution several hundred times above safe levels. The local school was closed, over 200 houses were demolished, and over and above 1,000 families were evacuated. Degradation of the environment can have such devastating consequences.

Hence the modern environmental crisis has created a need for ecologically based religion and spirituality called “Eco-Spirituality” which draws together religion and ecological activism.

Another nature-based religion called Paganism has been in existence since long. Many pagans put trust in interconnectedness among all living creatures, which allows them to foster moments of soul-searching before acting. The pagan ideas are coterminous with eco-spirituality because pagans understand the environment to be a part of the holy realm and part of their inner self. Therefore, in their view, harming the environment directly affects their wellbeing.    

(The author Dr K. Jayanth Murali, an IPS officer is Director DVAC, Chennai)