Environmental crime such as the poaching of elephants for ivory and the selling of illegal charcoal is helping to finance criminal, militia and terrorists groups, said a report from the United Nations Environment Program released Tuesday.
Al-Shabab, the terror group that operates largely in Somalia, makes between $38 and $56 million per year in illegal charcoal, the UN report said. The Lord's Resistance Army, which U.S. troops are trying to help hunt down in central Africa, make between $4 and $12 million a year by trafficking elephant ivory.
'There have been a clear change in the nature of wildlife crime in the last three four five years. It's happening on an industrial scale now.' - John Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
The far more lucrative environmental crime, however, is illegal logging, which the report said is worth between $30 and $100 billion annually.
"This is a big story. It's a sad story. It's threatening communities and international economics despite everything we've put in place at the national and international level, the forces of the market are not allowing us to come to grips with this problem," said Achim Steiner, the head of UNEP.
The illegal trade in natural resources has mushroomed in recent years and threatens species and ecosystems but also national economies, Steiner said. The magnitude of money lost to national economies "registers on an economic Richter scale" and requires a more systemic response because of the transnational nature of the threat, Steiner said.
Tuesday's report was released during the first ever United Nations Environmental Assembly, a weeklong conference in Nairobi.
John Scanlon, the secretary general of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said experts believe that speculators are stockpiling ivory in the belief that elephants will one day become extinct and the price of ivory will rise. Poachers have killed tens of thousands of elephants across Africa in recent years, a trend that experts say will lead to extinction if the killings are not stopped.
"There have been a clear change in the nature of wildlife crime in the last three four five years. It's happening on an industrial scale now," Scanlon said.
Kenyan battery-recycling plant comes under fire
In conjunction with the weeklong conference, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday highlighted another type of environmental crime: A battery-recycling plant on Kenya's coast that has exposed workers and communities to lead poisoning, leading to the deaths of three people and sickening many more.
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Jane Cohen, a researcher on the report, said the case was an example of what happens when economic development is not regulated.
"We've known for thousands of years that lead is dangerous," said Daniel Barstow Magraw Jr., the president emeritus of the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law. "This is the opposite of sustainability, to bring in an industry that operates in a way that kills people. ... The laws in Kenya are capable of taking care of this but they're not being enforced."
This week's UN conference will bring together attorneys general, prosecutors and at least one Supreme Court chief justice to talk about environmental law, Steiner said.
"Many countries are developing environmental law. We will be looking at what countries need to do to make sure that enforcement aspect is scaled up," he said.