Green Customs Initiative Offers Officers New Tools

BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - Customs officers around the world now have a new level of international support on which to rely as they attempt to stem the multi-billion dollar illegal trade in ozone depleting substances, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes and endangered species.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is spearheading the new initiative, Monday signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Customs Organization (WCO) to foster stronger ties between the two organizations on environmental enforcement issues.

"Among its many important activities, the World Customs Organization has been providing investigative support to track environmental crime," said Toepfer. "As the only international intergovernmental organization specialized in customs matters, WCO is an essential partner in the new Green Customs initiative we are launching today."

With a focus on training border guards to better spot and apprehend criminals trafficking in environmental commodities, UNEP has opened a new customs website at: http://www.unepie.org/ozonaction/customs/.

The site is part of the new initiative to address the growth of environmental crime, one of the most profitable new areas of international criminal activity.

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Fur coats made from ocelot and other protected species on sale in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Elizabeth Fleming courtesy TRAFFIC)
Transboundary environmental crime is a big and lucrative business. A December 2000 U.S. government report, "International Crime Threat Assessment," estimates that local and international crime syndicates worldwide earn $22 to $31 billion annually from hazardous waste dumping, smuggling prohibited hazardous materials, and exploiting and trafficking protected natural resources.

"The illegal traffic of toxic waste negatively impacts on the environment and health of thousands in the developing world," Toepfer said. "At the same time criminal groups smuggle environmentally harmful products like ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), whose legal trade is subject to stringent international restrictions."

"The smuggling of ivory, tiger bones, and rare orchids are a direct threat to species survival," Toepfer said, adding that building the capacity of customs officials around the world is essential in the fight against the illegal trade.

Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Justice Department, agrees.

"When it comes to law enforcement and customs training around the world, we urgently need a more coordinated international response to strengthen the domestic capacity of countries to tackle this problem," Sansonetti said. "The UNEP led Green Customs initiative can provide an effective training package for strengthening domestic institutional capacity on environmental crime and enforcement of multilateral environmental agreements."

The size of the global black market for ozone depleting substances such as refrigerants is estimated to range from 20,000 to 30,000 metric tons annually. Illegal imports of these substances are far cheaper than CFCs that are legally recycled or obtained from limited existing stocks.

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U.S. Customs officer and canine assistant (Photo courtesy Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
The Green Customs initiative aims to improve coordinated intelligence gathering, training, and the exchange of information such as codes of best practice amongst the partner organizations involved.

The website where interested organizations and the customs officers can get information such as lists of upcoming training, environmental trainers, and training presentations is a key feature of the project.

Initial partners in the project include UNEP, the World Customs Organization, the secretariats of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that have trade provisions, and Interpol, the international criminal police organization.

When smugglers and traffickers in banned items conduct their trade across international borders they may be violating the regulations of UNEP administered treaties such as the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

"By sharing expertise, experience and infrastructure, multilateral environmental agreements are working together to present a coordinated customs training front", said Toepfer. "In addition, this coherent approach to the problem of illegal trade should help ensure the implementation and enforcement of the MEAs in question."

Criminal organizations are estimated to earn $10-$12 billion per year for dumping trash and hazardous waste materials. The stealing and illicit trade of natural resources, including illegal logging and the trade of forest timber, is profitable for criminal organizations, earning them $5-$8 billion per year.