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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Green Criminology and the Illegal Mahogany Trade in Peru

Nickie Phillips

A recent article in National Geographic about illegal logging in Peru raised interesting questions about the ability of government to effectively protect the environment-- and the communities that rely upon it-- from criminal exploitation. Agents from Peru's park service are outmatched by loggers intent on cutting down endangered, but highly valued mahogany for furniture markets abroad. And, the service does not have the boots on the ground to effectively patrol tens of thousands of miles of protected forest. Meanwhile, indigenous communities who attempt to protect their forests are met with a timber mafia with guns and reputations-- and such criminal monikers as "El Gato." Complicating matters, some indigenous communities accept pay-offs from illegal loggers.

Interestingly, Peru came reluctantly to environmental criminal enforcement in the first place, spurned on by a caveat to a 2007 U.S. free-trade agreement which required the country to comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Although Peru has development a logging regulation and permit system, many permits are traded on the black market and inspection and enforcement stations are few and far between. Legitimate permit holders are expected to plant 10 times the amount of new mahogany plants that they cut down. With few operating legitimately, the hope for a million new mahogany trees by 2013 is unmet.

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Criminologists are increasingly becoming interested in crimes against the environment under the banner of green criminology. Although criminology is still largely obsessed with street crimes, the field has opened up considerably in the last twenty years to previously under-researched criminal behavior. Among the questions surfacing is whether new theoretical models are needed to explain such avenues of study as environmental crime.

In the case of Peruvian mahogany, one could make a rational choice argument about demand for mahogany creating a powerful monetary incentive for loggers to go rogue and provide the supply. Green criminology, however, is more interested in the social, economic and political conditions that lead to environmental crimes and exactly what harmful human behavior against the environment should be criminalized. Lynch and Stretsky (2003) describe the perspective as an environmental justice one in which race, class, and gender all factor into the analysis. In its critique of capitalism and its focus on power relations, the discourse appears to be a subsection of critical criminology with the environment as its focus.

Critical criminology would look at the kind of first-world conspicuous consumption represented by mahogany and link it back to the kinds of unequal social relations and environmental harms at the source point. According to Jennifer L. Anderson's Mahogany: The Price of Luxury in America, the demand for mahogany in American homes is a product of the tastes of the mid-eighteenth century elite. Furniture made from the wood is frequently sold today as a luxury item.

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Whereas the free trade agreement may have bolstered the Peruvian economy, it also seems to have had the unintended consequence of accelerating the pace of Amazonian deforestation (despite CITES)-- an irreplaceable resource the whole world needs whether for clean air or medicinal plants. The same networks of legal trade that gives avenue to the illegal trade. And, the regulatory system is manipulated by loggers cutting both legally and illegally, drifting in and out of crime (perhaps reminiscent of neutralization theory).

green criminology

Overall, green criminology's importance is less in creating a brand-new theoretical concept than in rightly highlighting a critically important but under-recognized criminal harm. The field should not be left behind other disciplines that have taken on the problems of environmental justice.

This is the first in a three-part series on green criminology this month in recognition of Earth Day (April 22).