From undercover investigations to global treaties

Over the decades, we have honed a methodology combining intelligence-gathering, analysis and tenacious advocacy which make us a highly effective campaigning organisation tackling the gravest global challenges of our time.

Our investigations are not an end, but a means to an end. The work does not finish with the publication of a report or an exposé on the news; rather, the investigative findings are part of a carefully calibrated campaigning strategy to bring about systemic change.

Julian Newman, EIA Campaigns Director

Our approach

We have a proud track record of achievements, including a ban on the international ivory trade and increased protection for whales and dolphins. We have also contributed to a legislation against imports of illegal timber in major consuming markets and a global agreement to curb the use of climate-damaging chemicals. We have spearheaded moves to create a global treaty on plastic pollution and we continue to expose those behind environmental crimes such as wildlife trafficking and illegal logging through our undercover investigation.

When the Environmental Investigation Agency was created in 1984, its first investigation and campaign was to protect cetaceans (whales and dolphins) from direct threats such as hunting in the Faroe Islands.

EIA campaigners began attending meetings of the International Whaling Commission, including its Scientific Committee, and as a result learnt about other indirect, equally concerning threats to cetaceans. The hole in the ozone layer, in suppressing the production of plankton in the ocean, was posing a serious threat to the crucial food source for whales.

From protecting whales to repairing the ozone layer

The international community came together in 1987 to agree the Montreal Protocol, which sought to heal the ozone layer through phased reductions in the consumption and production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were widely used for refrigerants and aerosols.

Yet the ozone layer remained in a parlous state and EIA began hearing reports that a flourishing illegal trade in CFCs was undermining progress towards the Montreal Protocol’s goals.

EIA began researching and investigating the illegal trade in CFCs. It appeared that while production and consumption of CFCs were increasingly controlled in Europe and the US, production was booming in countries such as China due to different phase-out schedules for its use in developing countries. This provided opportunities for unscrupulous brokers to smuggle CFCs into Europe and the US.

EIA set out to expose the illegal trade through undercover investigations and in 1997 it published a groundbreaking report entitled Chilling Facts About a Burning Issue: CFC Smuggling in the European Union. The report was timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary meeting of the Montreal Protocol.

At the meeting, EIA campaigners successfully pushed for an amendment to the Protocol, establishing a licensing system for trade in ODS. Following this, EIA campaigners began to regularly attend Montreal Protocol meetings to bring new information on illegal trade in ODS to the member countries and gradually build up detailed knowledge of the workings of the Protocol.

Greenhouse gases – a new environmental threat

When a new environmental threat emerged in the booming production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals intended as replacements for CFCs, EIA was well-placed to intervene once more at global level.

HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases but as they had no impact on the ozone layer, they were not covered under the Montreal Protocol. They were one of chemicals in the basket of gases under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but no progress was being made on HFCs under that convention, which generally appeared to have stalled.

To EIA, the answer was simple – the Montreal Protocol had the experience and expertise in gradually phasing out refrigerant chemicals such as CFCs, so should be given the brief to tackle the worrying growth in HFCs. After all, the expansion in use of HFCs was a direct result of the CFC phase-out under the Montreal Protocol. After almost a decade of advocacy work by EIA to make its case, in 2016 parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed the Kigali Amendment to control production and consumption of HFCs.

Turning off the plastic tap for good

By the late 1990s, a new and urgent threat to the survival of cetaceans and a host of other marine species had emerged – plastic pollution of the world’s ocean. While initial efforts to grapple with the spiralling problem focused on the treatment of waste plastics, EIA’s detailed analysis showed that without tackling the burgeoning consumption and production of plastics at source, the scourge of plastic pollution would continue unabated.

Yet the challenge was to design an international agreement that could progressively reduce production and consumption of plastics. EIA had a ready-made model in the form of the Montreal Protocol, considered to be the world’s most effective multilateral environmental agreement to date.

EIA took this message to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), attending a host of meetings to build support among member governments over a number of years. These tireless efforts paid off in March 2022 when, at the UNEA meeting an historic agreement was reached to start negotiations on a legally binding plastics pollution treaty to address the full lifecycle of plastics from creation to disposal – a step in the right direction for turning off the plastic tap for good.

Bringing other illegal trades to the fore

New laws to combat the illegal timber trade

From the late 1990s, our investigations into illegal logging across Asia helped us successfully convince policymakers of the pressing need to exclude illegally logged timber from the major markets of the EU and US, which led to the EU Timber Regulation coming into effect in 2013 and the UK Timber Regulation post-Brexit.

And in January 2020, following 20 years of EIA campaigning, China amended its Forest Law to include a nationwide ban on buying, processing or transporting illegally sourced timber.

Our investigations in the past two decades have revealed how China is effectively exporting deforestation around the world and we have urged it time and again to follow the example of countries such as Indonesia, the USA, European Union and current attempts by Vietnam and put its house in order with a combination of legislation and strict enforcement.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaigns Leader

Playing a pivotal role in securing a global ivory trade ban

In the late 1980s, EIA was involved in a major groundbreaking investigation into the illegal ivory trade, spanning three continents and a multitude of field trips. Our interest was sparked by a meeting with a source who had evidence of suspicious shipments of ivory tusks moving from Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates.

We set out to collect our own proof, an endeavour which would involve a succession of field trips over several years as one lead pointed the way to another. Our footage was broadcast on major news channels and played a vital role in building political support for the global ban on the ivory trade agreed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989.

Over the years, sharing our intelligence and expertise with law enforcement agencies has played a key part in ensuring that rule of law prevails once a global ban is agreed. The information we shared with the China Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau in our Shuidong Connection report prompted a series of financial investigations, arrests and prosecutions and led to the arrest of a prominent criminal gang member.

And we have also produced an online training tool for law enforcement personnel and agencies. It provides best practice on all aspects of ivory enforcement, from trained sniffer dogs to crime scene management and forensics. It was translated into nine languages it is now being used around the world.

The closure of international and domestic ivory markets has always been a key component of EIA’s Elephant Campaign – in 2018, we led a coalition of NGOs and successfully lobbied the UK Government to introduce an ivory ban, later helping to fight off an appeal in the Supreme Court in 2020 to quash the antiques trade’s final bid to kill off the UK Ivory Act.

More recently, we worked with partner organisations to bring about similar measures at the EU level and in 2021 the European Commission announced new legislation and guidance to restrict ivory trade to, from and within the bloc.

In June 2022, the UK Ivory Act finally came into force, effectively outlawing all legal ivory trade in the UK.

The UK Ivory Act came into effect in June 2022, banning virtually all trade in ivory in the country. In this podcast, EIA Senior Wildlife Campaigner Lindsey Smith and Wildlife Campaigner Rachel Mackenna take a look at these latest developments affecting elephant conservation and consider likely next steps.

Closing the loop

While introducing new laws and legally binding agreements between states are vital to achieve systemic change, monitoring law enforcement remains crucial as part of this process.

Hence the key role which our investigations also play in exposing smuggling methods to help disrupt criminal networks and build support for law enforcement by the relevant local authorities.