Environmental crime, tax havens and a sour pangolin

Usages de Siam, 1665–1700, Gallica (BNF): ark:/12148/btv1b550073041

It’s pretty hard to miss injunctions to sustainability these days. Whether I’m picking cereals for breakfast, taking the trash out or choosing a mode of transportation to a new place to sit down with my laptop, I have plenty of options for an ecological or ethical solution, or a combination of both. The green fashion even penetrated the thick leather of bankers and traders, resulting in sustainable investment trending feverishly.

Yet, somehow, environmental crime is rising. As if suddenly, when everyone is avoiding to throw away their empty plastic bottles in the park, some do the exact opposite, increasing the rate of littering on the green patch where families have their picnics.

Why, I asked myself, opening the Interpol report on environmental crime for the first time. Why would anyone do that.

It turns out most environmental crimes happen far away from our big cities. They are not happening where I am right now, in a café for digital nomads where you could have some fresh organic juice in a recycled plastic cup. Environmental crime is committed far from the orderly buzz of urban centers, on the boundaries of the industrial spread, where the outer appendages of human life meet the remaining bits of wild nature. In the forest, the desert, the ocean. Where people make a living through manual labor, with a machete or a fishing net.

For anyone a little bit sensitive to questions of ecology, Interpol’s report is one hundred pages of picturesque nightmare. Like reading the autopsy report of a car crash, while driving fast on the highway, guggling a bottle of third rate gin. But I need to make a point on the connection existing between tax havens, BlackRock and the destruction of the Earth’s forests, so Interpol’s 2016 report is fundamental. It’s a little old, but recent data is not showing any significant change, except maybe that police authorities are collecting more data and taking the problem more seriously than before.

When Interpol published its report, environmental crime was going through intense growth and diversification, becoming the fourth largest crime sector and expanding at 2–3 times the pace of the global economy. The estimated value of the stolen natural resources was between $91 billion to $258 billion annually, but the exact figures are difficult to estimate. Criminals are not very straightforward when it comes to reporting their statistics.

The largest part of the loot is illegal logging and timber. Environmental crime also covers illegal fisheries, traffic of hazardous waste, mining, and the traffic and poaching of endangered species like elephants, rhinos, tigers or pangolins. Yes, pangolins, I’ll come back to them.

The illegal exploitation of natural resources must also be understood within the dark network of activities leeching on it. Violent armed groups often grow ranks in the vicinity of abundant natural resources, as in the case of the gold mines of Eastern DRC or Columbia. Further up the food chain, the financial crimes of illegal trade, money laundering and tax fraud create the permissive and corrupted environment which allows destruction to thrive. This is where tax havens play their part.

White collar crooks create shell companies in tax havens to hide the proceeds of financial and environmental crimes. Forging licenses of exploitation, creating empty corporate mailboxes and shuffling capital and personal liability between them, allow criminal networks to corrupt officials and mix legal timber with timber shipped from protected areas, for example. While the “dirty” timber is being laundered and mashed into paper for self-help books, its financial value is copied down into balance sheets that will ultimately end up being packaged into investments on the stock market, by BlackRock or some other asset manager. Just like the beef or the palm oil that will be farmed where the forest used to be.

At this point, I should probably talk about the pangolin. Not the species of scaly anteater as a whole, but the specimen I have right now in front of me, on the other side of the café table. It’s been here for about an hour and I can’t ignore it any longer.

— Hey. Huh, hello ?

The gray-ish armored pokemon doesn’t say anything. Instead, it puts a bag of tobacco on the table and proceeds to pile up dark minced leaves on a cigarette paper, which it then rolls tight using its front claws.

— You’re not adding any filter at the tip? I know life is short, but…

I can’t finish, baffled by the pangolin, who is stretching its tongue all the way to the cigarette paper on the table, running almost as long as the animal itself. I stare awkwardly. The extravagant appendix deftly licks the half-rolled cig, until the creature holds the cancer stick towards me in its little sharp hand.

— Got a lighter ?

— I quit like three years ago.

— I didn’t ask you about your life, buddy.

The pangolin steps down from its chair and walks towards the next table on its four legs, not higher than a medium-sized dog. It stretches its pink, gooey tongue inside each bag laying next to the customers until it finds a lighter, then comes back on its chair to light its cigarette, puffing jets of smoke through its mouth’s small, toothless hole.

— You can’t smoke inside, I rightfully object.

— We gotta talk, you and me, the pangolin said, ignoring what I just said.

— Talk ? You can’t talk, you’re a pangolin. You don’t even have vocal cords.

— Smart that, going for the vocal cords. Let’s cut the bullshit shall we. We need to talk about the pile of crap you wrote, the report.

— The what ? My report on BlackRock’s investments in deforest…

— Yada yada yada. Yeah, the report.

— Hold on, so you read it ? What do you think of the conclusion ?

— Do you think I came all this way to pat your shoulder and debate policies ? I’m here because you wrote that pangolins caused the covid pandemic.

— Some of the sources I used mentioned it. The Pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world, so it’s important to know that this traffic is causing a risk of pandemic.

— Thanks for the lecture, I really needed that. I had almost forgotten about the thousands of my comrades being killed and eaten. Now, my friend, when was the last time you checked for scientific papers connecting the pangolin to the covid pandemic ?

Its little eyes are staring at me coldly, behind a halo of bushfire smoke.

— So ?

— Maybe two years ago. I was doing the research.

— Research ? Did you even fact-check this ? It wasn’t us, ok ? Pangolins didn’t start covid.

— What ? But I…

— Don’t even. Just open the link.

— You can’t just paste a link and say something is true. There are other research articles supporting the pangolin origin.

— You are a dense one. There’s no definite conclusion on pangolins. It could still be bats, ticks, or some god damned reptilian overlords hiding in a pizzeria in Washington. The point is that animal trafficking is the most likely cause of the pandemic.

— But the reptilians…

— Just. Stop. Let me finish your article for you, because clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about. What you need to explain are the causes of environmental crime, and what you and the other humans can do about it. I hate to admit it but pangolins are not geared for dealing with this. Lack of vocal cords and all that.

The creature’s cigarette went out while it was talking. It lights it again pensively.

— Plus, it’s entirely your own mess. The first thing is poverty on the front line. The primary reason for poaching and illegal logging is that it’s a source of food and income for the humans who live in or just outside wild nature. Second is demand. As your cities expand and the number of humans grow, you are buying more beef, soy and palm oil. The price of food goes up and it’s giving more incentive for the humans on the margins of civilization to make some money by killing wild animals or burning the forest. But you noticed the problem. In fact, some of you in the big cities were upset by the pictures of elephants slaughtered for their defenses, and the thousands of endangered species being killed for sport or money. So you created new rules and regulations to make the traffic and the killing illegal, or at least more difficult. But it had the opposite effect. By making it more scarce, you made wild-life trafficking more desirable. At least that’s what is supposed to be happening in Asia, in particular China and Vietnam, where demand for consumption of endangered species is the highest. Of course it’s hard for the West to blame the East, because westerners already killed most of their own wildlife in the course of their big run for global domination.

The pangolin’s cigarette is out again, already a foul-smelling roach. It leaves it on the side of the table and rolls another one, while I’m packing my computer to go home. The pangolin doesn’t take the hint and goes on talking.

— The third and last reason for environmental crime is the lack of institutions with the capacity to act. There are some measures to limit the traffic of endangered species, but the profound causes of environmental crime are not addressed. There is no public institution to shield forests and oceans from the pressure of the demand for food. The people living close to wild nature have no other option than over-exploiting their own habitat, while the traders, to whom they sell their products, escape the law and the tax that is supposed to pay for the salaries of forest rangers, and for the schools where humans could learn how to make a living without burning and killing. Call me a socialist, but if you find a solution that is not attached to a state or a central authority, it makes no difference to me.

— Are you done yet ? Do you have anything positive to say or do you just want to be depressing and blow smoke in my face ?

— Yeah, actually. Here’s some homework for you. Call your local politicians and ask them about tax havens. Ask them about corporate fiscal avoidance. Then call your bank, and ask them about the positions they hold in tax havens, and how many of these companies are exploiting natural resources in developing economies.

— That’s it ? A few phone calls ?

— Pretty much. I could ask you to overthrow the capitalist oligarchy but it’s too vague, in fact. Start small. Make friends.

— Do you have a name, O fountain of wisdom ?

— Maybe next time.

This article is the ninth in a series

Start from the beginning: Campaigning against BlackRock, almost all the information you need