US Foreign Policy

Trump Can Help Bridge the Natural Security Divide during First 100 Days

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Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Presidential Inbox 2017 — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Johan Bergenas

THE CHALLENGE: For years, environmental concerns have centered on climate change and conservation. Primary concerns have been about the effects of a warming planet and loss of biodiversity. These focuses, however, neglect the persistent and systematic threat posed by environmental crime.

Worldwide, environmental crime generates as much as $258 billion a year and grows by five to seven percent annually  —  two to three times the growth of the global economy. This makes it the third largest illicit market, behind the trade of narcotics and counterfeiting.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one fifth of the legal fishing trade, valued at $23 billion annually. Its environmental damage has been extensive, with over 90 percent of the world’s fisheries either overfished or fully exploited. The illicit mineral industry, propagated through unlicensed mining, is responsible for further annual worldwide resource losses calculated between $12 and $48 billion. Increases in wildlife crime  —  the poaching and animal trafficking sector is worth more than $19 billion  —  have doubled the size of the illegal ivory trade since 2007. Illegal logging, however, dwarfs all other forms of environmental crime, accounting annually for up to $100 billion and constituting up to nearly 30 percent of the timber trade.

These costs are ordinarily seen to threaten economic development and ecological vitality. Illicit financial flows circumvent government taxation, preventing reinvestment in the economy. Environmental crimes themselves contribute to ecological degradation as natural resources are exploited unsustainably. Environmental crimes, however, are also increasingly recognized as threatening global peace and security.

THE CONTEXT: Perpetrators of environmental crimes often engage in everything from arms trafficking to terrorism. Groups from al-Shabaab in East Africa to FARC in Colombia have financed their destructive activities using natural resources. In other cases, criminal enterprises use legitimate natural resource extraction to mask illicit endeavors. Fishing vessels, for example, have often been implicated in the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and persons. In one such case from 2016, the Australian Navy interdicted a fishing vessel smuggling weapons worth $2 million.

The impact of environmental crime on national security is even easier to see. Conflict over fishing grounds in Southeast Asia threatens to escalate into serious armed conflict. Tensions between South Korea and China, for instance, were recently tested when the South Korean coast guard used machine guns to fire upon Chinese vessels engaged in IUU fishing. This incident, however, is symptomatic of the broader trend. South Korea has apprehended thousands of Chinese IUU fishing vessels, and foreign fishing prompted Indonesia to habitually destroy vessels caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. While IUU fishing best highlights the state-to-state component of environmental crime, challenges across the sector pose complex security threats both nationally and internationally.

PRAGMATIC STEPS: To address environmental crime through the global peace and security agenda, we need to think about these issues differently. We require a deepened, amplified and fact-based narrative that demonstrates the need and opportunities for partnership and action-oriented programming across the environmental and security divide.

To bridge this divide, President-elect Donald Trump should include these natural security issues in his first National Security Strategy and appoint a Natural Security Czar to coordinate the U.S. response to these challenges. This will provide much-needed action on a largely overlooked component of national security.

Failure to properly support such initiatives is a failure of America’s responsibilities to both national and international stability.

Johan Bergenas is a Senior Associate and Director of the Partnerships in Security and Development program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Learn more about Bergenas’ innovative work on Natural Security at Trainer, a research intern for the Managing Across Boundaries initiative, contributed research and drafting support to this article.

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

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