Illegal ivory sales, poaching of endangered species, and other environmental crimes aren’t debated very often, and when they are it’s usually framed as an issue that only diehard environmentalists could get work up about. But according to a report released today by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), the annual value of international environmental crime could be as high as $213 billion per year, and that money is being redirected mostly from governments in dire need of revenue to organized crime, insurgents, and terrorist organizations like the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab operating in Somalia.

Environmental Crime

Illegal African charcoal industry alone worth up to $289 million

“For African countries with ongoing conflicts, including Mali, CAR, DRC, Sudan and Somalia, a conservative estimate is that the militia and terrorist groups in the regions may gain USD 111–289 million annually, dependent upon prices, from their involvement in, and taxing of, the illegal or unregulated charcoal trade. More investigation is needed to determine the role of charcoal for threat finance,” says the UNEP report, The Environmental Crime Crisis, and that’s just charcoal in one part of Africa.

Between urbanization and a growing population, the demand for charcoal in Africa is expected to triple in the next few decades, but that number is still relatively small. Illegal flora and fauna (dead or alive) is worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually, while global forest crime (including illegal logging) is between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. In some cases as much as 90% of wood from some tropical countries was either logged illegally or otherwise went through illicit channels before ending up on the global market.

Environmental crime outstrips global official development aid

In addition to the environmental degradation and the very real threat finance issues that this raises, environmental resources that are being exploited to benefit a small criminal class really should be benefiting developing nations as a whole. Global official development assistance is around $135 billion every year, right in the middle of the $70 billion – $213 billion estimated value of environmental crime. Not all of that would end up as local government revenue (you would hope that a government wouldn’t intentionally hunt its elephant population to extinction for its ivory, for example), and getting that revenue where it is actually needed is another set of challenges.

Nonetheless, it’s striking that clamping down on environmental crime could help developing governments almost as much as opening up Western government coffers.