East African Community (EAC) customs officers are meeting in Kigali to discuss incorporation of the Green Customs Initiative into national custom training curricula to enable them meet their obligations under international environment agreements.
The Green Customs Initiative is a partnership designed to enhance the capacity of customs and other relevant border control officers to monitor and facilitate legal trade and to detect and prevent illegal trade in environmentally-sensitive commodities covered by trade related conventions and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).
The three-day workshop, organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has brought together around 50 customs officers from Rwanda, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, to talk about environmental crime in detail.
Officials said on Wednesday that it is also meant to facilitate the inclusion of Green Customs Initiatives as a regional programme involving custom officers.
Colette Ruhamya, Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), said that most environmental problems encountered in the world today have a trans-boundary nature and a global impact.
She said these environmental problems can only be addressed effectively through international co-operation and shared responsibility made possible through multilateral environment agreements, several of which regulate the cross-border movement of items, substances and products, mainly in the form of imports, exports and re-exports.
“This gives customs and border-protection officers’ responsibility to control trade across borders, a very important role in protecting the national and global environment,” Ruhamya said.
Environmental crimes are illegal acts which directly harm the environment, she said. They include: illegal trade in wildlife, smuggling of ozone depleting substances (ODS), illicit trade in hazardous waste; unregulated fishing, and illegal logging and the associated trade in stolen timber.
Multi-billion dollar enterprise
Perceived as low on the priority list, she explained, such crimes often fail to prompt requisite response from governments and the enforcement community while, in reality, impacts affect all in society.
Elisée Gashugi, a lecturer at University of Rwanda who is an environmental scientist, said the scale of environmental crimes is increasing worldwide and they include the trade of “environmentally sensitive” commodities.
Thus, he said, this workshop “comes at the right moment” because there is an increase in trade volumes among the EAC countries and also with other countries worldwide.
Experts say environmental crime is a significant and increasingly lucrative business.
According to REMA in 2016, environmental crimes were estimated to be worth US$91 to US$258 billion annually, a 26 per cent increase from previous estimate in 2014 and is rising five to seven per cent annually, which is two to three times the rate of the global economy.
Patrick Salifu, the UNEP Regional Network Coordinator, said environmental crime is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in which local and international syndicates worldwide earn an estimated US$22-31 billion dollars annually from hazardous waste dumping, smuggling proscribed hazardous materials, and exploiting and trafficking protected natural resources.
“Customs officers are at the front line of every country’s efforts to combat illegal trade. They must, therefore, be empowered, equipped and trained if an MEA is to be successful. They are the cornerstone of national compliance and enforcement strategy for each international agreement since they are the front line in any controls on trans-boundary movements of controlled items.”
As part of UNEP’s role as an implementing Agency of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, Salifu explained, they designed and delivered national and regional customs training workshops in partnership with national ozone units.
Customs and border protection officers are considered the first link in the compliance and enforcement chain against trans-boundary illegal trade.