16.5: The Limits of Environmental Laws and Regulations


Despite all the efforts to protect biodiversity through laws and regulations, the scale of environmental crimes continues to increase year after year. Today, the US $91–258 billion environmental crime industry is the world’s fourth largest illegal enterprise, after drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking (Nellemann et al., 2016). Increased financial support for environmental law enforcement could certainty help: current spending to combat environmental crimes, globally estimated at US$20–30 million a year, is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the losses incurred from these same crimes, which are 10,000 times greater (Nelleman et al., 2016). There is also a need to prevent environmental crimes before they happen, given that the damages incurred cannot always be undone by punishing the offenders.

Environmental crime is the world’s fourth largest illegal enterprise, after drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.

An important step towards reducing the scale of environmental crimes is to address the ineffectiveness of environmental regulations. That includes addressing the range of tactics that criminals use to facilitate non-compliance (Chapron et al., 2017), but also ensuring there are mechanisms that remove the incentives for people to engage in environmental crimes. In the following section, we look at some of the most prominent challenges that complicate environmental law enforcement.

Lack of capacity

The foremost reason why environmental laws fail is that authorities often lack the capacity for effective monitoring and enforcement. Lack of capacity is a major problem in the marine fisheries industry due to the size of the oceans and the cost of patrolling them.

Lack of capacity is exacerbated by law enforcement officers that turn a blind eye to actions they deem innocuous, or when prosecutors fail to indict criminals out of fear of reprisals. Regulatory controls may also no longer exist or be enforced in regions that experience substantial political instability, economic hardship, civil unrest, or war (Hanson et al., 2009; Beyers et al., 2011). But even in areas where regulatory controls exist, prosecution can be complex, and thus very hard, especially when the illegal activities cross international boundaries and different legal jurisdictions. Such a breakdown of legal mechanisms often leaves natural resources vulnerable to whoever can exploit them.

Conflicting government priorities

Clashing priorities between different government structures complicate the enforcement of environmental laws. We see this when agencies overseeing mining activities issue inappropriate permits because of pressure for economic development, or because of corrupt agreements between businesses and government officials (Mascia and Pailler, 2011). Another example of mixed priorities occurs when a national government gives permission to extractive companies to exploit protected areas or communal lands without first consulting and obtaining local input and consent. Such government-sanctioned violations are generally very difficult to prosecute and require an active and caring citizenry to take their governments to task.

One of the most popular methods for citizens to make themselves heard is activist activities, such as public protests. Concerned individuals can also launch petitions on websites such as https://www.change.org, http://www.greenpeace.org, and https://www.avaaz.org. There is even a website for whistle-blowers (https://wildleaks.org) who want to report environmental crimes anonymously. Another positive development is the growing number of successful lawsuits that concerned citizens and environmental justice organizations have brought against their governments for environmental violations (e.g. CER, 2017; Yende, 2017).

Informal economies, traditional activities, and the law

Law enforcement can at times be counterproductive. This is true especially in areas where the separation between informal/unreported and illegal activities is blurred. For example, traditional people who graze their livestock, collect medicinal plants, or hunt and trap animals in protected areas that were established on ancestral land seldom have criminal intent. But because formal law systems seldom account for these informal activities, those people are engaging in illegal activities.

When dealing with vulnerable people, conservation initiatives must also consider impacts on livelihoods and the potential for sustainable utilization

When dealing with vulnerable peoples whose livelihoods are threatened, an approach that involves sensitivity and compassion generally offers more effective and enduring resolutions. Many conservation initiatives have not only failed but have also created long-lasting negative attitudes by preventing traditional peoples from sustaining their livelihoods. Before implementing new regulations, governments should carefully consider if they would disrupt livelihoods. If so, it might be wise to consider if some form of sustainable utilization isn’t possible.