Environmental Crime Pays in Developing Countries, Says Study

Environmental Crime Pays in Developing Countries, Says Study

Weak enforcement systems generate an insufficient deterrent to illegal activity in critical biodiversity areas, according to a new study by Conservation International.

For the first time, environmental economists have calculated dollar figures demonstrating the risks and rewards of breaking environmental laws. The study also found that less than 1% of natural resource crimes result in punishment or sanctions.

In Papua Province, Indonesia, for example, a shipload of illegal timber yields profits of roughly $92,000, while the deterrent is only US $6.47 -- making the rewards of this illegal activity over 14,000 times greater than the risks. Results from three other case study sites -- which examined enforcement of illegal logging, fishing, and wildlife trade laws -- are similarly alarming.

The global study was conducted in four biodiversity hotspots -- Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines -- by CI's Center for Conservation and Government (CCG). It presents the first quantitative evidence of how poor environmental enforcement is in biodiversity rich countries.

Even when fines are high, the chances of arrest, prosecution and conviction are so low that few lawbreakers ever actually pay a fine, making the enforcement system's deterrent value negligible.

"Enforcement systems in these countries work so poorly that the profits to commercial-scale illegal activity far exceed any potential penalty for breaking an environmental law," says Anita Akella, author of the study and Technical Director of CI's Enforcement Initiative. "The returns are tremendous, so it's not surprising that illegal environmental activity continues to be rampant."

Data from the remaining three sites further illustrate just how weak enforcement deterrents are.

  • In Brazil, illegal loggers in the Atlantic Forest can make US$75 per tree they harvest; but face a deterrent of only US$6.44.
  • Poachers in Mexico's Selva Maya Forest net an average of US$191.57 per trip; but face a deterrent of only US$5.66.
  • In the Philippines, illegal dynamite and cyanide fishing in the Calamianes Islands earn fishermen an average of US$70.57 per trip. The value of the deterrent? Nine cents.

    According to Jim Cannon, co-author and Deputy Director of CCG, "Improving compliance is a big challenge. We need to reduce the drivers of illegal activities, for instance by creating income alternatives and reforming unjust laws. But we also need stronger enforcement. Fortunately rapid improvements can be made throughout the system -- the key is to target enforcement resources better." Cannon also sees a role for high-tech detection tools like using satellites to locate illegal loggers.

    However, the study emphasizes that detection alone is not enforcement. Synthesizing site-level findings, the study describes in detail the frequently overlooked challenges contributing to poor enforcement, and provides a three-point investment strategy for strengthening enforcement effectively.

    The traditional conservation response to poor enforcement in the hotspots has been to hire and equip more park guards, and to raise fines. While acknowledging these activities as critical, the authors conclude that in isolation, this response has been ineffective; because it does not address the entire enforcement chain -- detection, arrest, prosecution, conviction and penalty -- in an integrated way. Enforcement systems are only as strong as their weakest link -- and this study offers quantifiable evidence of just how weak many of the links are.