The exploitation of the environment can constitute criminal activity in and of itself. Criminal groups profit from illegal logging, fishing, and mining while depleting fish stocks, eroding soil and polluting bodies of water as well as the atmosphere. During a recent interview, Walter Kemp, professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna who also works at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime underscored that climate change creates new opportunities for criminal groups: “We need to put a lot more focus on the link between climate change and the impact of organized crime on the environment,” Kemp explains further. “That’s a connection that is still not being made sufficiently: people are profiting from the destruction of our planet.”

Climate-related migration, triggered by rising sea levels and natural disasters, opens up markets for human smuggling. In a future scarcity of commodities, sand, water, charcoal and certain minerals will likely subject these resources to illegal trafficking in the years to come. As highlighted in the latest World Drug Report published by the UNODC in 2022, there is also an important linkage to be made between illicit drug economies and the environment. However, since this field of research is rather new, there is relatively little awareness of the environmental harm done by illicit crop cultivation and drug manufacturing.

Deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and biodiversity loss pose serious threats to the environments of the world’s largest illicit coca cultivators: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Illegal coca cultivation is associated with up to 58% of deforestation in the Andean region, and nearly half of all illicit coca bush cultivation occurs in specially protected areas including national parks, forest reserves, indigenous reserves and land reserved for the Afro-Colombian population. Land-use change, i.e. turning forests into crop fields, releases significant amounts of CO2e. The UNODC 2022 World Drug Report estimated that “manufacturing of 1 kg of cocaine generates 590 kg of CO2e, which is 84 times higher than growing coffee beans and 30 times higher than growing cocoa beans” (UNODC World Drug Report, 2022: 44).

Crop Substitution
Although the policy of crop substitution could thus provide more sustainable and climate-friendly alternatives, it also presents substantial challenges. Firstly, cultivating coca is simply a more lucrative activity. Furthermore, whilst coffee beans can only be harvested once a year, making farmers vulnerable to fluctuating weather conditions, coca bushes can be harvested up to six times a year. As Kemp highlights, “replacing an illicit crop with a licit one is only part of the solution. You need the infrastructure to manufacture, transport and sell licit crops; and for this you need market demand.”

Crop Eradication
An even more problematic policy is crop eradication through aerial spraying, practiced in Colombia between 1994 and 2015. This method releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, harming the surrounding flora and fauna. On top of the detrimental environmental impact, UNODC found that crop eradication triggers a ‘Balloon Effect,’ meaning that coca cultivation is simply relocated to adjacent municipalities. Highlighting this point, Kemp asserts that “eradication in and of itself is insufficient: any kind of drug control strategy that is dealing with organic crops has to find a way to deal with the livelihood of those people.” Expanding on the ways to counter the eradication issue, Kemp states that addressing the environmental consequences of the illicit drug economy “is important, but it needs to be part of a much broader set of interventions.” There must be sustainable development, resilient civil societies and available opportunities for young people and individuals from marginalized communities. “Most of all, you need to reduce demand for these [illicit] goods,” points out Kemp.

Society and Culture
While the environmental repercussions of cocaine trafficking attract increasingly more international attention, the often-sidelined cultural context should not be forgotten. From an indigenous point of view, coca leaves are of great cultural and historical importance. The people of the Andes have cultivated coca bush for over 8,000 years. In the Incan Culture, coca leaves play an important role in sacred ceremonies and rituals, and indigenous communities continue to use the leaves today to combat altitude sickness, relieve pain, and relax muscles. Yet, as underscored by Kemp, it is important to distinguish between the traditional use of coca leaves for chewing or brewing of tea and manufactured cocaine consumption in the Western world. Similarly, one should not conflate regulated traditional use with the legalization of cocaine. Even though traditional coca use has been implemented in Bolivia and Colombia, “that market is tiny compared to the coca leaf that is grown for people consuming cocaine in other parts of the world”, Kemp notes. “Enabling the traditional use of coca will not eliminate the supply of coca leaves that form the basis of production for cocaine.”

Peace and Security
The supply of coca leaves, as well as transnational organized crime more broadly, must also be understood in the context of peace and security. Having recently attended a conference in Colombia on President Gustavo Petro’s ‘Plan for Total Peace’, Kemp remarks that “the policy being promoted by the President of Colombia deserves a lot of attention because it is the first time that a government has seriously tried to tackle, as a policy, dealing with armed groups involved in illicit economies.” Nonetheless, the Colombian government is undoubtedly facing an immensely challenging task. “What does peace look like in terms of total peace? Less homicides, or something more?” Kemp asks, noting the importance of preventing a “criminal peace” and acknowledging the “potential minefields“ and “moral hazards” the Colombian government must be cautious of.

The policy of “Total Peace” being attempted in Colombia is different from militarized responses being used against drugs in other parts of the world. Kemp cautions that “the whole idea of a war on drugs is misplaced because it is not a war that you can win. It’s a problem that we are always going to have. You can’t necessarily solve it, but you can manage it more effectively.”

Instead, Kemp highlights the need for a comprehensive approach that is both top-down and bottom-up. He explains that “on the one hand it is important to work top down in these kinds of situations to deal with the ecosystem of the culture of protection that some of these criminal groups enjoy. But at the same time, you have to work from the bottom up: resilience and community level development are crucial.” To implement this, the Global Initiative, which believes that “there is safety in numbers, in networking and solidarity,” has launched the Resilience Fund which supports brave, yet vulnerable civil society groups that stand up against organized crime and corruption.
More generally, there is room for a more strategic response towards dealing with illicit economies. Kemp is currently engaged in formulating a global strategy against organized crime. He partly credits the inspiration for spearheading this strategy as a result of in-class discussions about the future of organized crime at the Diplomatic Academy. “I had the feeling that students were not convinced by the answers on how to deal more effectively with this problem. That motivated me to try harder,” said Kemp. This, and the fact that one of the members of his team is a recent graduate from the DA, “shows how the Diplomatic Academy can be a workshop for generating new ideas and new approaches to effective multilateralism.”

Written by Annkathrin Rest; Edited by Viktor Kharyton

Photo credit to: BBC Three