Illicit resource extraction and poaching — industries worth up to $213 billion a year — are funneling money to criminals, militias, and (in some high-profile cases) terrorists, according to a joint study by Interpol and the UN’s environmental agency (UNEP).
The total supersedes both the world market for illegal drugs, which is valued at an estimated $200 billion, and the $135 billion in official development assistance given to low-income countries, where most of the plundering takes place.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network has been accused of profiting from illegal logging and timber trade. Rebels in Bangladesh, India, and Mozambique have all been linked to poaching to finance their operations.
In Somalia, much of the unregulated or illegal wood and charcoal trade — estimated at up to $100 billion worldwide — has been captured by the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabaab.
At least $360 million in charcoal exports, mostly to nearby Middle Eastern countries like Yemen and the Gulf States, have helped finance several high profile al Shabaab attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the siege of the Westgate Mall that killed some 70 people and another in mid-June on a coastal resort that left 48 dead.
“Unlike what’s all over the media, al Shabaab is not trading ivory, it’s actually mainly involved in forest crimes,” Christian Nellemann, head of UNEP’s Rapid Response Unit and Assessments and the editor of the report, told VICE News. “Charcoal and forest crime constitutes a major source of financing for organized crime militias, including terrorist groups.”
Indeed, at one roadblock in al Shabaab-controlled territory, the group has been able to earn nearly $20 million in taxes on charcoal shipments.
Elsewhere, militias in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo have extracted similar amounts. In parts of northern Nigeria, it’s possible Boko Haram is profiting off similar set-ups.
Militias linked to the Sudanese government have been monitored venturing hundreds of miles from the border to exploit an uncontrolled ivory trade in parts of Cameroon and in the Central African Republic. The remaining traces of the Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as groups from Chad and Niger, are also believed to be involved in the trade.
“The striking range of some of the militant groups, using pick-up trucks, is around 1,000 miles,” said Nellemann.
Recent reports show that the Janjaweed, the Sudanese government-backed horse militia implicated in the genocide in Darfur, have become brazen once more in coordinated attacks aimed at "emptying" certain areas the region.
Between 20,000 and 25,000 African elephants are killed each year by poachers. From 2002 to 2011, the number of forest elephants in Africa declined by over 60 percent. Rhino poaching, a scourge mostly limited to Zimbabwe and South Africa, led to the deaths of at least 1,000 animals last year, an alarming increase from only 50 in 2007. Between 2005 and 2011, some 22,000 great apes were also killed.
Outside of a few successes in East and Southern Africa, rangers, if there are any, are no match for organized criminal gangs funded by a rapacious Asian market for ivory, estimated at up to $188 million in the case of elephants.
While tales of murdered animals may catch headlines, it’s still the charcoal trade that provides the greatest illicit opportunity. Exploits like al Shabaab’s are minuscule next to a continent-wide trade in charcoal estimated at up to $25 billion, about one percent of which ends up in the hands of organized criminals.
Unlike the plundering of diamonds or cobalt in the Congo to feed Western vanities and motherboards, demand for African charcoal is mostly local. Ninety percent of the wood consumed in Africa is used as fuel — mostly by the poor to cook and heat — either directly burned or converted into charcoal.
It’s estimated that the charcoal trade in Africa will likely triple in the next decade, which the study says will lead to a “dramatic increase in deforestation… with subsequent impacts on forest-related water resources, land degradation and loss of ecosystem services.” Such growth in an industry that requires little in the way of violence to control could provide a bonanza for parasitic rebel and terrorist groups, who when they control the trade are on average able to skim 30 percent of its value via taxation.
“Organized crime wants to get into normal things, a commodity that everyone is using, like paper, food,” Nelleman said. “If you can tax that even a little bit, you would be making a lot of money."
Because it’s unregulated, governments in East, Central, and West Africa are unable to tax up to $9 billion in trade. By comparison, the total street value of illegal drugs in those regions is only $2.65 billion.
Burning charcoal can emit up to 16 times as much greenhouse gases as kerosene or gas. Focusing on changing Sub-Saharan Africa's small but growing carbon footprint is easier, of course, than those of developed countries that extract fuels from the continent. Though flows have since slowed, in 2010 Nigeria alone exported 341 million barrels of oil to the US, worth some $36 billion at today’s prices. Until the continent’s masses are presented with a viable alternative to burning wood products, it will remain the fuel of choice.
There is some good news, though it comes from outside Africa. In 2012, deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest fell, by 78 percent, to its lowest level since monitoring began in 1988.
Illegal forest harvests are typically imported to the European Union as paper products, abetted by complex networks of shell companies.
Still, Nellemann said, “the volume of organized crime in illegal logging in the Amazon is so advanced that they are hacking government websites in order to obtain permits to cut down forest.”
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