For most people contact with customs officers is normally limited to deciding whether to choose the green or red channel when arriving at airports. Yet customs agents have a vital role to play in combating environmental crime.
I’ve just returned from Beijing where I spent four days in a conference room with customs personnel from over 30 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, spanning Afghanistan to Fiji. The gathering was organised by the World Customs Organisation’s Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO) for Asia, which currently has its headquarters in Beijing and its focus was combating environmental crime.
Customs officers play a key role in intercepting consignments of illicit goods, such as protected wildlife, banned ozone-depleting substances and hazardous waste. Yet with more than 20 million shipping containers shuttling around the world plus huge numbers of flights, detecting environmental contraband poses a severe challenge, especially given the pressure on customs to speed up trade and gather revenue.
Rather than carrying out random checks on shipments, which is like looking for a needle in a haystack, accurate risk profiling and intelligence sharing is vital; this is where RILO comes in.
Over the course of the meeting information was shared on environmental crime trends, use of customs codes, methods of concealment, intelligence analysis and case studies. Those readers who follow the work of EIA know that we often call for stronger enforcement of laws against environmental crime. The meeting in Beijing was really all about the nuts and bolts of effective customs operations to tackle smuggling of wildlife and controlled chemicals. The fact that it brought together customs officers from around Asia was especially important; the region’s trade is booming, it contains the world’s three busiest ports in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, and has significant trade in wildlife, illicit waste and ozone-depleting substances.
During coffee and lunch breaks, I had the opportunity to hear at first hand from customs officers of successful actions against environmental crime; recent seizure of illicit ivory in Hong Kong and Vietnam, and interception of illegal ozone-depleting chemicals in Thailand, Indonesia and China.
Since the headquarters of RILO in Asia moved to Beijing in 2004, China customs have pushed for stronger action against environmental crime. In 2006 RILO, at the instigation of China customs, launched the regional operation “Sky Hole Patching” aimed at intercepting smuggled ozone-depleting chemicals and hazardous waste. EIA was able to assist by providing a list of companies implicated in these crimes. We have also produced a series of training films intended to help customs officers to detect contraband wildlife and chemicals.
During a dinner at the end of the meeting Wang Zhi, Head of RILO and Deputy Director-General of China Customs’ Anti-Smuggling Bureau, made a stirring call for stronger action and support to tackle environmental crime. It is a call EIA will certainly answer in our bid to assist customs officers working on the frontline.