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Organized environmental crime: Why it matters for peace operations

Organized environmental crime: Why it matters for peace operations
Villagers working in gold mines in Uganda, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock

Organized environmental crime has become one of the fastest-growing types of organized crime. In many conflict-affected contexts, it is the primary source of financing for non-state armed groups. In the light of this, how can peace operations and other multilateral actors respond to conflicts that are driven or sustained by activities that involve illegal exploitation and trade in natural resources?

What is organized environmental crime?

‘Environmental crime’ lacks a universally agreed definition but has been referred to by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as ‘illegal activities harming the environment and aimed at benefiting individuals or groups or companies from the exploitation of, damage to, trade or theft of natural resources, including, but not limited to serious crimes and transnational organized crime’. The five most prevalent types of activity currently encompassed by environmental crime include illegal mining and trade in minerals such as oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, zinc, coltan and lithium; illegal logging/deforestation and trade in timber; unreported and unregulated fishing; wildlife crime; and pollution crimes (the illegal dumping and trade of chemicals and waste, and the illegal production and trade of ozone-depleting substances).

Organized environmental crime is highly lucrative and causes complex forms of victimization. Statistically, global environmental crime is the third largest crime sector in the world and is estimated to generate between $110 and $281 billion annually in criminal proceeds. However, the full global economic value of illegal logging, fishing and wildlife trade alone is estimated by the World Bank at $1–2 trillion per year, with over 90 per cent of economic losses due to environmental crime’s impact on ‘ecosystem services’ (which may include prevention of the degradation of watersheds and land erosion, improving water quality and quantity, and absorbing carbon emissions). Environmental crimes also have an impact on access to clean water and air, and food security. Consequently, they not only endanger wildlife populations and, through damage to the environment, harm biodiversity and ecosystems, but also affect human health and well-being, which limits development opportunities for current and future generations.

Environmental crime has become the largest source of financing for non-state armed groups and militias, accounting for 38 per cent of their income, which is used to sustain their engagement in conflict. According to UNEP, competition over or grievances relating to natural resources constitute a root cause of armed conflict, having played a role in at least 40 per cent of all intrastate conflicts since the end of World War II and at least 18 armed conflicts since 1990. Further, conflicts with a link to natural resources are twice as likely to result in a relapse into conflict in the first five years. Failure of peace agreements to address natural resource management and ensure access by local communities and groups may entrench grievances, increasing the possibility of a relapse into conflict. Nevertheless, between 1945 and 2015 only 15 per cent of peace processes explicitly addressed natural resources, and of the 10 that did, implementation of national resource management provisions was minimal at best.

Challenges of addressing organized environmental crime

Traditionally, environmental crimes have been perceived as ‘victimless’, as they are not directed against a person and may not produce an immediate consequence, but the harms caused by organized environmental crime are diffuse and tend to result in collective victimization, affecting communities, including future generations, through cumulative health, environmental, economic and development harms. Environmental crimes also cut across different sectors, such as conservation, trade, and security, usually falling under the purview of the state agencies responsible for the protection and conservation of the environment. The enforcement, investigation and prosecution of these crimes are severely under-resourced, and environmental crimes are often treated as a low priority by policymakers, governments, and courts, with the result that perpetrators are often not prosecuted, and in some jurisdictions face few if any consequences.

Even in advanced high-income economies, environmental regulatory and enforcement agencies typically have far fewer resources and weaker enforcement powers than the police. They are empowered primarily to levy minor civil sanctions, such as relatively modest fines, which exercise little deterrent effect. Seizures of wildlife and illegally sourced environmental commodities frequently do not result in prosecutions or further investigations. Also, seized material in many jurisdictions frequently ends up back in the supply chain due to corruption within the enforcement authority. The combination of low risks and high profits has helped to drive the rapid growth of organized environmental crime globally.

At the same time, there is an increasing convergence between environmental crime and other types of serious and organized crimes. For example, human trafficking for forced labour is frequently linked to illegal fishing, and established smuggling routes for drug or human trafficking are used for illegally exploited minerals. Criminal networks conceal illicit commodities with wildlife or in shipments of timber, while products from illegal logging, illegal mining and waste trafficking are often ‘co-mingled’ with other benign products to conceal their illegal origin, which makes the tracking and prosecution of environmental crimes ‘notoriously difficult’. Moreover, proceeds from illegal fish, wildlife, timber or minerals are used to procure weapons and drugs.

This convergence of crime is also evident in corruption and money laundering, which paves the way for all types of organized crime. For example, organized environmental crime is facilitated by corruption within state offices (high-level and local political officials, police, border and customs control, harbour officials, licensing authorities and regulators) as well as the private sector (shipping companies, freight forwarding companies, brokers, exporters). These examples show how corruption occurs in the source, transit and destination states. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) maintains that, while non-state armed groups receive proceeds from organized crime, the majority of those proceeds goes to ‘political actors at all levels and associated transnational criminal networks’, both of which have a vested interest in the continuation of conflict.

Gaps in overlapping public policy sectors that deal with environmental protection, trade and organized crime have contributed to the lack of acknowledgement and action. Also, despite the high amounts of illicit proceeds and costs involved, many states treat environmental crime as a conservation issue rather than one that undermines public security and the rule of law, depriving states of revenue and posing a threat to human health and sustainable development.

Tackling organized environmental crime requires expertise in environmental law, highly specialized investigative skills, and an ability to ‘follow the money’ (analyse complex cross-border financial transactions). It also requires significant rather than low-level sanctions and for prosecutors and courts to not dismiss cases but instead bring such crimes to trial, although this requires interagency cooperation. Further, as explicitly recognized by the UN, like many other forms of organized crime, organized environmental crime has a strong transnational aspect. Strengthened laws and enforcement measures in one jurisdiction displaces the trafficking and trade to or through other jurisdictions with weaker laws and enforcement. Therefore, countering organized environmental crime requires regional approaches and cooperation that are underpinned by sufficient political will.

Organized environmental crime is challenging for advanced economies but poses even greater demands in fragile and conflict-affected settings where the state authority’s presence may be weak or contested by non-state armed groups that rely on illicit criminal markets for revenues and where porous borders enable transnational flows of illicit commodities. In these settings, there are few resources to monitor and enforce environmental regulations. Further, local populations, who must find ways to cope with reduced livelihood options, may engage in artisanal and small-scale mining, where armed actors are often present, and competition among armed groups drives conflict. With conflict that is cyclical or recurrent, coping mechanisms may well reinforce environmental organized crime. That is, local populations may not only be subject to the predations of armed groups, informal taxes on their crops or products, and forced labour but may also rely on those same activities of natural resource exploitation and wildlife trafficking in order to survive.

Given these factors, environmental crimes globally have enjoyed a high degree of impunity, even in relatively well-resourced states. While this appears to be slowly changing in certain jurisdictions such as the European Union, in most other regions organized environmental crimes remain low in terms of policy priority.

Relevance for peace operations

Today, in conflict-affected settings where the largest UN peacekeeping operations are currently deployed, organized environmental crimes involving minerals, timber and wildlife constitute a major category of illicit markets that benefit armed groups and sustain armed conflict. For example, in the Central African Republic, armed groups are involved in the illicit mining and trading of gold and diamonds, often using forced labour. In addition, they are involved in timber trafficking and trade in elephant tusks, tiger and panther parts, and pangolins. In South Sudan, oil revenues have been used to sustain the conflict, as extractive industries are controlled by criminal groups linked to both rebel groups and government actors. Illegal logging, especially of teak, and charcoal production also drive deforestation in this region.

In Somalia, the UN Security Council banned the export of charcoal due to the destructive environmental and humanitarian impact of deforestation and charcoal mining and its role in exacerbating conflict as a major source of funding for al-Shabab and other non-state armed groups. Nevertheless, the illegal export of charcoal has continued.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), there is widespread illegal mining of gold as well as diamonds and ‘conflict minerals’—tin, tungsten and tantalum (coltan)—and cobalt. The proceeds from illicit and artisanal mining sustain armed groups. Illegal logging of high-value timber occurs alongside corruption in the allocation of logging concessions to foreign firms. The extent of organized environmental crime in the country led a recent experts’ report to observe that ‘the Government of the DRC, and by extension MONUSCO . . . are no longer dealing predominantly with a political insurgency but are increasingly facing criminal groups with links to transnational organized criminal networks involved in large scale smuggling and laundering operations’.

The Security Council has acknowledged the link between the illicit exploitation and trade in natural resources and that of armed conflict and the financing of terrorist acts, and accordingly, its relevance to international peace and security. Since the 1990s, the Security Council has adopted sanctions on certain natural resource commodities linked to armed groups involved in conflict, including timber, diamonds, minerals, charcoal and oil, and has issued supporting mandates to peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan.

SIPRI has found that, collectively, peace operations have addressed environmental degradation and resource scarcity through various activities including enforcing sanctions on conflict resources; securing areas of natural resource extraction from armed group control; collecting and analysing information on criminal networks involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources; supporting panels of experts in monitoring sanctions and national governments in tracking trade in illegal resources; building capacity for environmental management and good environmental governance; and integrating natural resource and environmental issues into disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes for former combatants. In addition, peace operations advise authorities on how to address the involvement of armed groups in the exploitation of natural resources. 

And yet, the approach by the UN and other multilateral actors to addressing organized environmental crime and, in particular, the role of the illicit market in natural resources in driving and supporting armed conflict has been ad hoc, piecemeal and largely technical. There is a continuing failure to link measures, including sanctions regimes, to peace operations and political strategies to build and sustain peace in conflict-affected states.

For example, the Security Council appoints expert groups to assist sanctions committees in monitoring and overseeing the implementation of UN sanctions regimes, including those listing individuals or entities involved in trafficking natural resources. As acknowledged by the UN, sanctions regimes work best when they form part of a coordinated and comprehensive political strategy that should also include political dialogue, mediation and peace operations. UN peacekeeping operations in principle provide support to panels of experts. However, this varies considerably in practice, due sometimes to the lack of understanding of sanctions by key mission personnel and, frequently, the perception that appearing to closely support sanctions regimes and target ‘spoilers’ will negatively impact mediation and the political process to advance peace. Therefore, despite recommendations from a high-level review to mainstream sanctions in programming across the UN system, including in peacekeeping and political missions, implementation remains poor.

Peacekeeping operations have recently begun to pay more attention to organized crime and its impact on conflict and post-conflict settings. For example, the capacity-building (training, institutional reform) of host-state police has been supplemented with the establishment of a dedicated Serious and Organized Crime team within the Mission Management and Support Section of UN Police Division (UNPOL). UNPOL has established specialized police teams to support the capacity-building of host-state police, including several supporting investigative capacities to investigate organized crime. However, capacity-building activities to counter organized crime appear to rarely target organized environmental crime. Despite the scale of organized environmental crime, its links to armed groups and conflict in mission areas, and its interlinkages with other forms of organized crime, there appears to be few detailed instructions to peace operations about how to address these types of threat or how to integrate approaches across the various mission components. For example, a UN core pre-deployment training module for peacekeeping personnel on the environment and natural resources mentions that 19 peacekeeping operations between 1948 and 2016 have been to areas where conflicts were clearly linked to natural resources. However, it provides no information on how these peace operations provided support in combating wildlife crime and illicit trade in natural resources. There also continues to be an absence of documented good practices and guidance and training for UN personnel and member states on sanctions and how to support expert panels tasked with advising, monitoring, and reporting to the Security Council on the implementation of sanctions.

Ways forward for peace operations and organized environmental crime

Peace operations can play an important role in the development of more comprehensive approaches that integrate natural resource issues linked to armed conflict into the search for political solutions, strengthening the rule of law and building state resilience to ‘withstand and disrupt’ organized criminal activities. This must be done while working with local communities and national authorities to develop natural resource management and enforcement capacities while supporting the development of legitimate livelihood opportunities.

Identifying good practices from past peacekeeping experiences in supporting sanctions regimes targeting illicitly exploited commodities, and then integrating this knowledge in the mediation of peace processes, peace operations and peacebuilding is necessary. The development of operational guidance for peacekeepers regarding sanctions enforcement should better equip peacekeepers to monitor the implementation of sanctions and systematically record and share relevant information on illicit exploitation and trade in natural resources.

Another underutilized approach is to build capacity along the ‘chain of justice’, including in security-sector reform programming. Illicit exploitation and trade in natural resources and wildlife that cause serious harm need to be codified as crimes. In addition to the capacity-building of police and customs and border management in countering organized environmental crime, advancing interagency cooperation between law enforcement and environmental and trade authorities is required. Further, strengthening the knowledge and expertise of prosecutors and judges is essential to strengthen this ‘chain’, particularly for organized environmental crime, where there are few prosecutions and impunity is common.

Some observers argue that the military and police currently lack sufficient environmental knowledge and that overly militarized approaches should be avoided, or rather their roles should be restricted to supporting other actors with expertise, such as environmental monitors and regulators. Networked approaches that bridge the police, environmental regulatory and enforcement authorities, and civil society organizations with a focus on environmental protection are needed at subnational, national, regional and international levels.

To summarize, combating organized environmental crime demands greater holistic and joined-up understanding and approaches to break the vicious circle of illicit environmental exploitation, collective harms, violence and underdevelopment. Environmental crimes cause harm to essential planetary life support systems through damage to the environment and biodiversity, and, in fragile settings, often sustain armed conflict. Through their depletion of natural resources, environmental crimes erode prospects for future development and undermine a key element of the social contract between the state and its citizens. Peace operations have tools to help host states begin addressing these crimes in a more systemic and effective way, but applying these tools will require a deeper understanding of the problem and coordinated efforts to overcome the ad hoc and siloed approaches that have predominated until now.


This commentary is the product of a research project on the role of peace operations in countering organized crime. SIPRI acknowledges the generous support of the Swedish Police Authority.


Dr Marina Caparini was until recently a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.