Thursday August 28 2014

Our current laws are too weak to curb environmental crime

By Maurice Enenu

Environmental crime is a serious and growing national problem which takes many forms. It covers a wide range of violations that harm the environment and human life; from errors at the administrative or record-keeping level to illegal dumping of pollutants to the environment.

In most parts of Uganda, the common environmental crimes include illegal trade in wildlife, particularly endangered species, illegal disposal of hazardous waste in a way that may cause harm to the environment, uncontrolled fishing and illegal logging of trees, leading to deforestation, wetland encroachment, etc.

The thirst for natural resources to spur growth and development at household and national level coupled with the need to promote investment, are the major drivers of environmental crimes.

The utilisation of natural resources in most cases is done in unsustainable manner, which compromises the vast functions that nature offers to animal and plant biodiversity and humans as well.

Poor usage of natural resources is taking a form of illegal allocation of land in protected areas, pollution, deforestation, etc.

Not only will these activities be economically costly, they have a huge potential to significantly reverse environmental conservation and socio-economic development if not managed properly within a larger framework of good governance.

For instance, at forest conversion rates of 6,000 hectares per month, deforestation rates are at an all-time high and the secondary effects are beginning to spill over into siltation of water resources, declining fisheries, habitat destruction and soil nutrient loss.

Environmental crimes that take place on a larger scale are not anything with which the average person is likely to witness or have to deal with, but some of them may in unusual circumstances affect the average person.

Often, these crimes are perpetrated by corporations that do not abide by appropriate regulations. Many of them are international crimes, crossing borders to places where laws on the environment may be less extensive.

Small-scale offences against the environment that are detrimental to the community are perpetrated every day and everyone has possibly witnessed their consequences such as foul smell, especially in industrial areas.

Environmental law violators are usually hit with criminal fines, probation, jail time, or a combination of these punishments.

While jail time may be the most formidable punishment for individuals who commit environmental crimes, fines are intended to deter large corporations from violating environmental laws and regulations.

Without the threat of heavy monetary punishment, some corporations might find that noncompliance is more cost-effective than obeying the law.

We ought to know that environmental crime is not restricted by borders, and can affect a nation’s economy, security and even its existence.

For example, a significant proportion of both wildlife and pollution crime is carried out by organised criminal networks, drawn by the low risk and high profit nature of these types of crime.

Globally, the same routes used to smuggle wildlife across countries and continents are often used to smuggle weapons, drugs and people.

Indeed, environmental crime often occurs hand-in-hand with other offences such as passport fraud, corruption, money laundering and murder.
The existing environmental laws in Uganda are weak and scattered in the different national laws. This means the current legal framework on environmental crimes needs to be reviewed to include deterrent punitive measures.

Mr is Enenu a programme assistant with Advocates for Natural Resources Governance and Development.