Nairobi — A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol shows that trade in charcoal is a greater security threat than poaching.
The report, titled The Environmental Crime Crisis, established a direct link between the illegal charcoal trade and terrorism whereas it was unable to establish a direct link between poaching and terrorism despite the presence of what UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said was anecdotal evidence.
The magnitude of the illegal charcoal trade, the report's Editor in Chief Christian Nellemann said, was especially disconcerting at a value of $1.9 billion in Africa annually.
"As has been reported by the group of experts to the UN Security Council, charcoal is the primary finance also for Al Shabaab, and the scale to give you an impression, the maximum in terms of ivory for threat financing we're dealing with four to ten million dollars annually, whereas when we speak about charcoal, we're talking of threat finance to the tune of $111 million and $289 million annually," Nellemann explained.
While the capture of Kismayu in Somalia from the Al Shabaab by the Kenya Defence Forces was hailed as a coup partly because of the disruption of their charcoal trade, Steiner said they were surprised to learn that it earned so many times more for criminal organisations than the illegal trade in wildlife.
"What people have discovered is an innocent tradition of providing people with fuel is a major economy. And what we underestimated because we never looked at is that once you start adding up the flows in charcoal and the quantities, you're talking about a lot of money for a lot of weapons for a lot of people to be paid to continue fighting," he said.
Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been identified as the major sources of charcoal and the Gulf as one of the biggest markets.
"Most importantly regarding charcoal and that is one of the chief messages of the report is that the scale of this has been totally been underestimated," Nellemann reiterated.
While the report was unable to directly link to the illegal trade in wildlife to terrorism, it was however able to directly link it to the conflict in the Central African Republic.
Interpol's Assistant Director Environmental Security Sub-Directorate, David Higgins, said for a direct link to be established between poaching and terrorism, the affected governments had to share information with one another and the agency.
"The government information and intelligence agencies are not connected and we're trying to create a platform for our countries to pool all the particular pieces of information together to assess the linkages between ivory and terrorism," he said.
But even in the absence of this link, Kenya's Attorney General Githu Muigai said it was clear from the report that international cartels had a hand in the illegal trade in wildlife and said it was time Kenya started tackling poaching in a manner similar to drug trafficking.
"It's a real war with gangs that sometimes have superior armoury, training. We need to think of the people involved in the wildlife trade the same way we think of the drug barons. We must through the book at them. They're racketeers, they're money launderers, behind them are lawyers, accountants and bankers and stock brokers, and so on. We must round all of them together," he told Capital FM News.
His sentiments were shared by Kenya's Chief Justice Willy Mutunga in a statement at the first session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA).
"The link between illicit environmental activities such as poaching and logging on the one hand, and terrorism and conflict, on the other, removes these activities from the inane and narrow realm of crime to the unnerving arena of state and human security. In other words, we must begin to see environmental crimes, money laundering, and terrorism as crimes of interoperable nature that imperil our democracies and our stability as nations," he stated.
And to which end, Steiner said, UNEP was part of an inter-agency effort to track containers carrying ivory and other contraband to their owners; the kingpins who fund the environmental crime enterprises.
"Seizures are no longer something to celebrate. We have to start thinking like drug enforcement agencies. Let's track these containers and get to the speculators stockpiling this ivory aware that if we continue killing them at the rate we are, elephants will become part of legend and the value of ivory will be equal to that of a historical artefact," CITES Secretary General John Scanlon said in support.