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Green Crimes and Ecojustice

The conference ‘Green Crimes & Ecojustice’ was held at Utrecht University in May 2023. This conference provided a unique opportunity to hear more on the increasingly important and broad fields of green criminology, environmental sociology, environmental law, political ecology, and conservation studies, and how these are engaged with the full spectrum of crimes and harms against the environment.

Professor Nigel South and Dr Daan van Uhm, coordinator of the RENFORCE Building Block on Illicit Environmental Markets, were interviewed by Gemma Venhuizen from the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, who wrote an article for the newspaper. A translation is shared in this blogpost.

From illegal mining to poaching: a lot of crime has a green edge

Many injustices are environment-related. Illegal mining, for example, or deforestation. “What used to go unpunished is now sometimes seen as a crime.”

Trade in exotic animals. Illegal mining. Dog fighting. Deforestation. Just a few examples of topics that criminologist Daan van Uhm, associate professor at Utrecht University, has been researching in recent years. Diverse themes, which are linked by one umbrella term: green criminology. A scientific discipline that focuses specifically on environmental and climate-related criminal behaviour.

A field on the rise, in which the boundary between what is and is not allowed is sometimes still blurred. It is precisely for this reason that Van Uhm organised, together with colleagues, a two-day international conference ‘Green crimes and Ecojustice’ in Utrecht at the end of May. “Bringing together criminologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, political scientists and ecologists is crucial to tackling environmental crimes,” van Uhm said the day before the conference.

“Especially because green crime is becoming more and more professional. The increasing scarcity of natural resources is attracting the attention of internationally organized crime. Criminal organisations are rapidly shifting their field of activity from ‘traditional’ activities, such as human trafficking and drug smuggling, to, for example, illegal mining. And there are hardly any international guidelines.” Ecocide – the collective term for actions that risk serious and often long-term damage to the environment – does not yet have a separate criminal law.

There should be ‘green justice’, argues Nigel South, a British Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and keynote speaker at the conference. “I am a realist and I also understand that it is difficult to set up and implement such legislation, for example in countries that cause a lot of damage but do not recognise the International Criminal Court. Nevertheless, we must continue to advocate for it, if only because new topics are rapidly emerging that touch on the subject of ecocide, both on land and at sea. Take deep-sea mining, for example, in which minerals are extracted on the ocean floor for electronics – which we as consumers are currently using and disposing of at a rapid pace.”

Roman Antiquity

South was one of the first to focus on green criminology when the term was introduced in the nineties. “Of course, there was still environmental injustice before that time, but initially it was mainly from a biological point of view, not criminal.”

Nature exploitation has been taking place for thousands of years, adds van Uhm. In an article from 2018, he describes how there was already a shortage of cedar wood 2,500 years before the beginning of our era because too many trees were cut down in Lebanon. In Roman antiquity, several elephant populations became extinct in North Africa because they were used in animal fighting. And in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin already mentioned large-scale deforestation on the island of Saint Helena during his trip with the Beagle.

“But such actions were never considered criminal. It was not until 1973 that the word ‘environmental crime’ was heard for the first time in the Dutch parliament.” That same year, the United States passed its Endangered Species Act, passing laws that shaped environmental policy. But there was no clear legislation criminalising violations of that policy.

Wilful blindness

Not all green crime is intentional, South emphasises. Often the crimes (or complicity in them) arise rather from ignorance. “But sometimes companies use ‘strategic ignorance’, pretending not to know the rules. And as individuals, we ourselves are often in denial in our daily lives. For example, by not really thinking about the consequences of buying a new phone…”

Van Uhm: “Many environmental issues are also subject to criminalisation: what used to go unpunished is now sometimes seen as a crime. Take the illegal trade in exotic animals. For a long time, it was largely ignored. At most, a symbolic fine was handed out now and then, but for the animal itself ‘a fine’ does not repair any harm done to the animal or ecosystem. An eco-centric way of looking at things also changes our views.”

Even issues that have not yet been criminalised are already being studied by green criminologists. “Think of the ‘positive lists’ [of animals that can legally be kept as pets], which state which pets are allowed. Or the presence of large apes in zoos – will that still be allowed in 50 years? In 2013 there was a trial concerning an orangutan in Buenos Aires, which was granted legal personhood and had to be released. That did not receive a worldwide follow-up at the time, but that could well happen. Especially now that environmental rights are being talked about more and more, the non-human victims of environmental crimes are also getting a voice.”

Future successes

In the context of green criminology, the traces of colonialism are also being talked about, says South. “People were exploited, and natural resources were depleted. Like other social sciences, criminology was initially endowed with a Western outlook, and the field paid little attention to problems in the Global South. Now it is a question of recognising that disadvantage and preventing it in the future. “Although green criminology as a concept is not laid down in law, successes have already been achieved”, van Uhm adds. “Take the climate lawsuit that Urgenda filed against the Dutch state in 2015, and won, or the successful case of Milieudefensie against Shell, in 2021. We are not there yet, but green criminology is increasingly on the agenda.”

More about the conference

The presentations ranged across environmental markets, eco-centric laws, greenwashing, ecocide, organized environmental crime groups, and African climate migrants.

The researchers and practitioners from around the globe shared how they are investigating and tackling problems related to deforestation, wildlife trafficking, pollution, climate change, animal harm, and illegal mining – among many other topics.

Speakers shared recent findings and recommendations with an audience that recognise the need to bring together and combine diverse ideas and approaches if we are to understand and respond to the environmental challenges that we face in the 21st century.

The conference was organised by green criminologists from Utrecht University and was attended by participants from different disciplinary backgrounds and from countries all around the world, from Mexico to Hong Kong and South Africa to Spain.

One of the founders of green criminology, Emeritus Professor Nigel South from the University of Essex, gave the keynote speech, focusing on planetary health and ecojustice, from green, blue, southern, cultural and decolonial criminological perspectives.

Dr. Tanya Wyatt, leading researcher on environmental crimes at UNODC, highlighted the urgency of research on green crimes with a presentation on developments in the global analysis of crimes that affect the environment. The lecture led into an important set of ‘roundtable’ reflections from Dr Wyatt and other environmental crime experts – José Antonio Alfaro Moreno from EUROPOL and Liliana Jáuregui Bordones from IUCN – concerning different ways forward in trying to bridge science and practice.

The panel – and the conference as a whole – truly underlined the importance of interdisciplinary academic research and dialogue on green crimes and ecojustice as foundations for policy and law-making in the near-future.

In total, the conference hosted twenty-seven panels with speakers representing universities, NGOs, and international agencies.