Crime pays


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Tired of losing money in the stock market? Now is your opportunity to get rich quick selling protected animals from the Selva Maya in Chiapas Mexico.

Don’t worry about getting caught. Government officials there never bother big traffickers. Occasionally they go after poor farmers, but even then only one percent of those that get stopped ever end up paying fines.

Alternatively, you might try shipping illegal timber from Papua in Indonesia. Each shipload can earn you up to $100,000 dollars in profits. Even though big boats full of timber are rather conspicuous, the police only detect about three percent of all ships carrying illegal logs. Besides, eighty percent of those that do get caught don’t ever pay any fines and those that do typically pay only one thousand dollars or so.

You can also earn high returns from small-scale illegal logging in the Atlantic Forests of Bahia, Brazil and illegal fishing in Palawan, Philippines. Investors take note. Environmental crime pays.

"Strengthening the Weakest Links, Strategies for Improving the Enforcement of Environmental Laws Globally", by Anita Akella and Jim Cannon of Conservation International, explains why. The laws and procedures are often confusing. Enforcement officials are poorly paid, trained, and equipped, and often corrupt. Enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges rarely work closely with each other. People in the judicial system don’t understand much about environmental laws and procedures and are much more worried about robberies and homicides. Nobody monitors what happens to cases that get into the system or sets clear strategies for achieving results.

Faced with this reality, most reasonable people would probably just give up in despair. However, let us hope that they don’t. It is hard to see how we can have any hope at all of protecting forests and wildlife unless we can enforce at least some key laws and regulations. Markets alone won’t do it.

To improve enforcement, we have to strengthen the whole system. That requires new policies and procedures, more money and training, greater transparency, and systematic monitoring. Law breakers need to be prosecuted and punished, not just arrested. The steps that come after arrests are often the weakest link. The laws need to be more realistic and fairer, as well as fairly enforced. Families must have other sources of income, the public needs to understand why all this is important, and steps must be taken to reduce the demand for illegal products. That won’t all happen tomorrow. Still, somehow we need to find a way to make the criminals pay, instead of just the crimes.


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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of this article in a pdf file, you can write Ingrid Neubauer at

You can send comments or queries to Anita Akella at: or Jim Cannon at:

The full reference for the article is: Akella, A.S. and J.B. Cannon. 2004. "Strengthening the Weakest Links: Strategies for Improving the Enforcement of Environmental Laws Globally." Washington, DC: Conservation International -- Center for Conservation and Government, September 2004.