Ecocentric values and enforcement in illegal environmental markets

The EU is an important market for illegal environmental trades – such as timber, wildlife, fish, waste, minerals and metals – which are causing serious harms to the environment worldwide. In this blogpost, the seventh in RENFORCE Blog’s special series on the enforcement of EU law, Daan van Uhm argues that ecocentric values should be embedded in both EU legislation and in EU law enforcement cultures.

Illegal environmental markets are causing significant damage to the environment worldwide. The global anthropogenic destruction of ancient rainforests, the mass extinction of species, the pollution of the atmosphere and surface and water and the impact of climate change, all reflect the challenges that we face in our rapidly-changing world. Emissions of greenhouse gases impact global warming and increase the sea levels, but also cause new phenomena such as El Niño in the Americas. The trade in endangered species puts not only their survival at risk; it damages the biodiversity of planet earth and increases the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19. These environmental harms are not land- or border-related; their complex effects threaten all life on earth. The EU is an important market for illegal environmental trades, such as timber, wildlife, fish, waste, minerals and metals. This blogpost argues that ecocentric values should be embedded in both EU legislation and in EU law enforcement cultures.

The Proliferation of Complex Environmental Crime Groups

Organized crime groups, corporations, and opportunistic networks all play an important role in facilitating illegal environmental trades in and out of Europe. In the contemporary context of vanishing borders, improved communication techniques, advanced transportation methods and a growing cyberspace, new criminal collaborations, alliances, and fluid networks are developing. These entrepreneurs shadow their illegal environmental activities with legitimately-registered companies, stimulate corrupt activities by bribing officials, or launder illegal trade into legitimate trade, for example, by forged paperwork. By benefitting from structural inequalities, power relations and asymmetries between northern and southern states, they look for opportunities to diversify their activities into illegal environmental markets.

In this globalized illegal environmental economy, the developing interconnectedness between environmental crime and other serious forms of crime shows that the traditional lines of separation are no longer appropriate for understanding and dealing with the increasing complexities of crime. Alliances are formed between crime groups and corporations and illegal entrepreneurs rapidly shift from ‘traditional’ criminal activities to illegal environmental markets, such as timber, minerals and metals, endangered species, fish and waste in the EU. The proliferation of these criminal organizations, interconnecting legal and illegal activities, can permeate government institutions, fuel corruption, infiltrate markets and politics, hinder economic and social development, and threaten security and safety in myriad ways. 

The Law Enforcement Dimension

Despite the involvement of complex alliances of crime networks and the intergenerational character of the harmful activities against nature, the plundering of nature is only since recently considered to be criminal or at least seriously harmful. In most legal frameworks, ‘nature’ is referred to as a state property which is to benefit growth of the gross domestic product, instead of an essential life condition. Such an approach to nature is generally strongly rooted in anthropocentric and materialistic worldviews. As a consequence, the international community has been very active in regulatory protection of the environment, but without integrating the criminal enforcement dimension in its policy circle. The Convention on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law never entered into force and the Directive 2008/99/EC on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law is one of the rare exceptions but the effectivity is disputable

This complicates enforcement in illegal environmental markets in practice. First, the continuing degradation of the environment is linked to the broad regulation and enforcement framework itself. There is preference for education, promotion, and self-regulation rather than directive legislation and active enforcement and prosecution. Second, law enforcement faces capacity problems, under-prioritization and underdeveloped experiences or expertise in the enforcement of illegal environmental markets in the EU. Third, illegal environmental markets and their harmful effects have a clear transnational character that demand global responses like at the EU level. Not only do judicial authorities need mutual legal assistance in order to deal with evidential matters, such as extradition or the confiscation of assets, but it’s also important to reconsider how the “value” of the environment is perceived in EU law and the cultural structures of environmental law enforcement.

Towards ecocentric values in the future? 

The effects of the overexploitation of Earth’s natural resources are increasingly becoming global problems. Nature exploitation has become the norm, a ‘precept of reason’ that normalizes overexploitation, driven by anthropocentric lifestyle patterns with few standards and much temptation. Since environmental issues will continue to affect us in the near future, it is important that we broaden our horizons. Instead of anthropocentric legislation, ecocentric values should be embedded in both EU legislation and in EU law enforcement cultures. From an ecocentric perspective the intrinsic value of environmental entities should be taken into account. By de-centring human interests and human perspectives, it is possible to view humans as part of a larger web of life in ecological and geological terms and mediate the human-environment interface.

Currently, environmental crime tends to be seen rather as an infraction or misdemeanour—that is, less serious than a felony or an indictable offence. However, the harms should be approached from ecological, socioeconomic and cultural criteria, rather than solely in anthropocentric terms of legal or illegal. Due to the social construction of harms, another enforcement mindset is needed. Ecocentric values are essential in law enforcement cultures in order to better interpret both the multi-dimensional nature of environmental harms and the complex networks behind illegal environmental markets in the EU. For instance, the increasing attention to ‘ecocide’ reflects more nature-centred and ecocentric perspectives on the rule of law. With the adaptation of a clear criminal enforcement dimension that recognizes both the seriousness of illegal environmental markets and the value of the natural environment as paramount in itself, the protection of the environment could be better secured in the near future.

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Daan van Uhm

Over Daan van Uhm

Dr. Daan van Uhm is Assistant Professor in Criminology at the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology. He conducted research on various forms of environmental crime, such as transnational wildlife trafficking, deforestation and timber trade in Southeast Asia, illegal mining in Latin America and the illegal trade in dogs in Europe, and assisted in several lawsuits. Daan van Uhm obtained his PhD in Criminology at Utrecht University in 2016 (The Illegal Wildlife Trade: Inside the World of Poachers, Smugglers and Traders, Springer). In 2018 he received the prestigious Veni grant of the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for his research project: 'The Diversification of Organized Crime into the Illegal Trade in Natural Resources'. Van Uhm primarily focuses on research in the context of green crimes and harms.