Environmental crime – putting the blame where it belongs

Excavator clearing forest in Indonesia for palm oil plantation (c) EIA

Excavator clearing forest in Indonesia for palm oil plantation (c) EIA

Understandably, environmental crime can be an emotive and infuriating issue.

The spectacle of magnificent, endangered creatures such as tigers, elephants and rhinos reduced to broken, bleeding carcasses, plundered for illegal trades in home decór, trinkets and fake ‘traditional’ medicines, can be all but impossible to view without provoking distress and fury in equal measure.

Tiger skin with official permit (c) EIA

Tiger skin with official permit – tailored for wealthy high-end consumers (c) EIA

Likewise, how can one look on dispassionately at the ruin of primal forests looted by illegal logging, left barren and lifeless or turned over to cash-crop monoculture? Or at a life form as grand and awe-inspiring as a fin whale broken down into chunks of flesh and blubber for no better reasons than political belligerence or to cash in on an artificially sustained market?

Confronted with the visual evidence of such profiteering abuse, it’s all too tempting to give free rein to the emotions and lash out at entire populations and geographical regions.

It’s not unusual for the findings of EIA’s investigations and the news updates we post to our social media platforms to provoke such comments, but unleashing the hate on an entire country not only does a disservice to the millions who may be innocent of any wrong, it lets the real villains of the piece off the hook.

Take China for an example; many activists and people who care about green issues regard it as an environmental Death Star, an opaque and sinister entity circling the planet to ransack it for precious woods to feed its huge furniture industry and endangered species for specious medicines, grotesque ornaments and knick-knacks.

Pretty much every story we post to Facebook concerning China will at some point elicit a response along the lines of ‘China is a plague on the planet’ or ‘China should hang its heads in shame’ or, more bluntly, ‘@#&$ China!!!!’.

It may be an understandable knee-jerk reaction but it’s not a fair one, considering that the widespread theft and smuggling of timber from other Asian countries is largely orchestrated by a relative handful of criminal syndicates and timber kingpins, by no means exclusively Chinese; likewise, the illegal ivory trade is conducted by one tiny minority (organised crime) for consumption by another minority (China’s emergent middle class – growing, to be sure, but by no means representative of their fellow citizens); tiger bone wine and tiger skin rugs aren’t manufactured for consumption by the teeming millions of often-impoverished Chinese living in the provinces, they’re far more frequently a high-end bribe to buy favour with the business and military elite.

Whale products in Japan (c) EIA

Whale products on sale in Japan – but they don’t feature on the majority of household menus (c) EIA

Japan is another country which often comes in for widespread blanket castigation, in part for its trade in ivory but more often for its incomprehensible determination to persist with whaling despite massive international outrage and annual face-losing clashes in the Antarctic between its ageing whaling fleet and Sea Shepherd.

And yet the evidence indicates that whaling is kept on Japan’s national agenda by a handful of influential, well-placed right-wing politicians, cunningly spun as being intimately connected with Japanese tradition (it’s not) and so inspiring some nationalists to attempt to defend it by accusing all external critics of being racist (they’re not).

In reality, only a tiny minority of Japanese citizens have any appetite at all for cetacean meat; so few, in fact, that the ‘industry’ survives only by offloading its huge excess of product onto school meal programmes, and with the help of significant Government subsidy.

An interesting case in point occurred this week within the comments of a Facebook post concerning the Icelandic tourist authority’s condemnation of an announcement by Kristján Loftsson, wealthy CEO of whaling company Hvalur hf, that he intends to resume the hunt for endangered fin whales this summer; EIA exposed Loftsson’s activities in our 2011 report Renegade Whaling, revealing how he had helped set up a Japanese business to import and market fin meat as a luxury product.

Some comments condemned Iceland as a whole, others called for sanctions against the country (and all other whaling nations), but one pointed out that the decision to hunt whales is Loftsson’s alone, not only done without the backing of most of his countrymen but evidently also against the wishes of the country’s own tourist board which argues that whale watching is a far more profitable activity for the country than whale slaughter.

Aside from the fact that blanket censure of an entire country is an unfair, scattergun response, it also does a grave disservice to the many NGOs and individual activists in countries such as China and Japan who, sometimes at considerable personal risk, are working to bring about change from within.

Without such people, the job of EIA’s investigators working undercover in these countries would be far more difficult and dangerous, and might well be nigh impossible in some cases.

Perhaps the biggest potential danger of tarring all with a single brush is that ultimately it could work against, or at least slow down, progressive change – who’s going to want to consider outside evidence, let alone use it to work for change from within, when they see themselves designated as an impersonal mass of morally bankrupt wrongdoers? It’s far more likely that it’ll foster a siege mentality, resistant to change and mired in worthless dogma.

Certainly, there’s a case to be made that if it’s a matter of corrupt politicians perpetrating or facilitating environmental crime, then their constituents should be working to get shot of them.

But as we know from our experiences at home, that’s not always so easy.