That many observers described recently as, “A big story and a sad story,” was the report by the United Nations and Interpol, that environmental crime from illegal logging to elephant poaching is increasing by the year.
The report was not just about the worth of this global environment crime; it was also revealed that this lucrative illegal trade “is helping to fund armed conflicts, (mostly in Africa), while cutting economic growth.”
Call it eco-crime, eco-terrorism or environmental crime, its all about illegal logging, fishing, mining, dumping of toxic waste and trade in rare animals and plants, while depriving developing nations of billions of dollars in revenues to help lift citizens from poverty.
It was in the face of this ugly situation that the first ever United Nations Environment Assembly, UNEA, considered as one of the most important UN meetings, was convened and hosted by UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya last week.
The creation of UNEA, considered by many as the coming of age of the environment as a world issue, was supported at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil in 2012, where world leaders agreed to strengthen and upgrade UNEP through universal membership, increased resources and greater involvement with civil society.
It is the highest-level UN body ever convened on the environment as it enjoys universal membership of all 193 UN member states as well as other stakeholder groups. With this wide reach into the legislative, financial and development arenas, the new body presents a ground-breaking platform for leadership on global environmental policy.
The UNEA meeting which was attended by environment ministers, scientists, civil society representatives and business leaders was to seek tougher action to prevent crimes such as illegal logging, fishing, mining, dumping of toxic waste and trade in rare animals and plants, among other burning environmental problems.
This illegal trade in natural resources has mushroomed in recent years which not only threaten species and ecosystems, but also national economies. This requires a more systemic response because of the transnational nature of the threat, thus attorneys general, prosecutors, at least one Supreme Court chief justice, and other legal experts were also invited.
Interestingly, the poaching of elephants for ivory and the selling of illegal charcoal in Africa where wood is a main source of energy, is worth $1.9bn a year, which is the main sources for financing criminals, militia and terrorists groups.
Experts believe that speculators are stockpiling ivory in the belief that elephants will one day become extinct and the price of ivory will rise, as an estimated 20 000 to 25 000 elephants were killed in Africa every year, out of a total population of up to about 650 000.
The most lucrative environmental crime is illegal logging, which the report says is worth between $30bn and $100bn annually. This shows that many criminal networks are making phenomenal profits from environmental crime, with a clear change in the nature of wildlife crime happening on an industrial scale today.
The meeting was to seek ways to improve co-operation, speed up ratification of treaties and try to find models for domestic legislation, as most countries do often have environmental legislation that is well intentioned, but ineffective.
Simply signing a commitment is one step, putting the finance, the technology and the laws in place are critical ingredients. In the recent past, many countries sign up for environmental treaties, but are often slow to ratify and fail to enforce them in domestic laws, on issues ranging from protecting animals and plants from extinction to outlawing dangerous chemicals or regulating hazardous waste.
Again, one big drawback is that developed nations often fail to provide promised finance to help poor nations fight everything from toxic waste to illegal logging.
It has been proved many times over, that after progressive decisions are made at the UN, no action taken. Then, how can resolutions from this UNEA meeting really translate into action?
First, there are different levels of enforceability. There are decisions that merely encourage countries to think in a particular way. And there are others where countries are committed to behave in a certain way. Every country is sovereign and so there are no environmental armies to enforce this, as these are just commitments.
The point here is that Nigeria should align with what the country needs, and learn from other countries, leveraging the international systems to help the Nigerian people implement certain measures that make life better.