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Illegal Mining and Organized Crime

headshot of Dr. Yuliya ZabyelinaDr. Yuliya Zabyelina is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at John Jay College, whose research focuses on transnational organized crime. She is also the editor, along with Daan van Uhm, of Illegal Mining: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Ecocide in a Resource-Scare World, forthcoming in August. Since the 1990s, organized crime has been increasingly involved in mining activities. Illegal Mining is the first book-length publication to focus on illegal extraction, trafficking in mined commodities, and ecocide associated with mining, with contributions from the perspectives of organized crime theory, green criminology, anti-corruption studies, and victimology.

OAR spoke to Dr. Zabyelina about her book and her research on organized crime. The interview is presented here, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

 

How are transnational organized crime groups involved in illegal mining?

Organized crime and terrorist groups have discovered that illegal mining is a lucrative business. Obviously they’ve been attracted to gold. We cover the Latin American region quite densely in the book; Colombia and Peru feature as countries with the risk of organized crime infiltration of gold mines. In those countries, there is informal (or artisanal) mining; this is all about regular people going out and trying to find gold, and nobody regulates them. It’s not a crime per se, but some countries obviously want to regulate it because they want to make sure that the procedure is legal and environmentally friendly. Informal mining is quite common, and because it’s not regulated, it’s somewhere far away from civilization and law enforcement, organized crime groups have tried to regulate those territories and control informal mining. That’s been done for several reasons.

First, obviously gold is expensive so it’s good income. Second, gold can be used for money laundering purposes. Also, human trafficking is part of this business. It’s like an infrastructure. You have emerging, informal mines, and miners have to live somewhere, they have to eat, they have to get water and they need mercury provided for gold production, raising a number of environmental concerns, and women are brought, because there’s demand on the part of miners. There’s tax evasion, and security concerns, because illegal mining and trafficking in precious metals and minerals can be used as a source of funding for terrorist groups or rebels. So it’s not just one crime, illegal mining, but it’s a bunch of things that are relevant and connected to each other.

A deforested area damaged by illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios province, Peru, Jan. 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A deforested area damaged by illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios province, Peru, Jan. 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

What are some of the environmental consequences of this type of mining?

It’s difficult to answer that question because the environmental consequences of illegal mining could be very different where different types of products are mined. For gold, it’s the issue of mercury and deforestation; many communities are displaced because of mining activities, and mercury can contaminate water, leaving local communities without fresh water access. I wrote the chapter [in Illegal Mining] on amber, so in parts of the world like Ukraine, they use high capacity pumps to put water under the earth and flush the stones. It’s very bad for the environment; deforestation is also an issue there, and the pump method makes the soil infertile.

You said that, in areas where this activity is occurring, governments often lack the capacity to enforce bans, creating opportunities for criminal groups to come in and evade legislation and law enforcement. What are some policy solutions governments can use to curb illegal extraction and trafficking in these commodities?

Again, answering that question requires looking at each specific region, there is not just one answer to all different types of mining. But it’s all about transparency and making sure that local communities have access to practices that are environmentally-friendly, regulated, and protected by the state. It’s about the state providing security, economic assistance, perhaps education, to miners. In order to operate complex, environmentally-friendly technology, they need to be educated and trained.

Obviously, there needs to be transparency in the supply chain. When gold is mined in Peru or Colombia, there’s little demand inside the country, so it goes to gold refineries in the United States or Dubai, and those refineries are responsible for making sure that the sourcing of their gold is legal, that it’s not funding terrorist groups. The same goes for diamond cutting centers, like Antwerp or New York—there were several big cases in New York involving illegal diamonds, and how they were used for cleaning dirty money from Colombian cartels.

How do you make the products of your work available to policymakers?

That’s a tough one—the problem of non-communication between academics and policymakers is a long-term issue. The best way, I think, is to organize events in which policymakers and academics and practitioners can come together and discuss these problems. We planned to have the book launch at the United Nations Crime Congress in Japan in April 2020, and we were expecting UN experts as well as academics and NGO representatives, but it was postponed.

The UN has been trying to raise awareness about the topic of illegal mining and trafficking in precious stones and metals. We have connections with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC); the forward of the book was written by someone from the UNODC, and they will be using this book for their own purposes.

We’re trying to build a partnership with them to raise awareness about the importance of this topic; we’ve had a number of events at the UNODC over the years. In my individual capacity as a John Jay professor I attend UN Crime Congresses every five years, and the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), another annual UN event. I’m part of a professional academic organization that’s registered as an NGO, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), whose representatives regularly attend UN events, so that’s part of how I established the partnership and moved it forward. In the past two years we’ve been talking a lot about emergent crimes, and illegal mining fits wonderfully under this larger umbrella of organized crime.

It seems to me that global terrorism has dropped out of the national discourse recently in the face of so many other global issues taking up our attention, like climate change or global pandemics. How do these issues overlap?

The problem with global crime is that it exacerbates all those problems. Pandemics aren’t only an issue of health, we have fraud, cybercrime, counterfeit masks and medicines, all associated with global pandemics.

cover image of Illegal Mining book, depicting deforested area in PeruIf you’re speaking about climate change, organized crime is there as well. It’s a global issue, and it’s not a standalone topic—it needs to be looked at together with other problems, from the point of view of different disciplines, so we can cross-fertilize solutions. Everything is connected with everything.

When you’re putting together a large text like this, how do you decide which perspectives are most important, which theories and disciplines to include?

You want to be working with the people who are experts in their respective regions or subfields; we were really looking to collect chapters from the most widely-known experts in that specific area. Then, it’s a matter of trust. Obviously I cannot be an expert on everything in every part of the world, so I’d rather go with somebody who knows it better. Then they have their intellectual discretion to decide what data they’ll use, or the theoretical framework guiding their research.

I’m really excited about this forthcoming book, it’s a topic that hasn’t really been discussed frequently in the field of my work and international criminal justice, so we were happy to put it in the spotlight with this publication.  

Denise Thompson is Trying to Make Post-Disaster Rebuilding Better

Denise ThompsonDenise Thompson is an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Department of Public Management, and an expert on disaster management and risk reduction. Her new book, Disaster Risk Governance: Four Cases from Developing Countries, was published in July 2019 by Routledge. To learn more about where and how she does this work, you can read a profile of Dr. Thompson in this year’s Impact magazine.

 

Read on for an edited interview with Dr. Thompson about her work related to disaster planning and recovery, and how she approached writing a book on such a complex topic:

 

What factors are most important to consider when planning for storms or natural disasters, whether far in the future or imminent?

Maybe the best way to answer that is to look at the disaster cycle. Mitigation, planning preparedness, response, recovery, reconstruction, and then back to mitigation. Even though I put the phases into discrete components, the cycle is integrated, not discrete. And the steps must always be revised.

Mitigation is essentially putting structural and non-structural elements in place well ahead of a storm. That includes hardening infrastructure as well as putting systems in place to make sure we can respond.

The preparedness phase gets ready for imminent disaster, including by bringing together supplies, people and other resources to respond, and making sure supplies are prepositioned where they’re expected to be needed; organizing transportation and marking routes for evacuation; and more.

Recovery includes the immediate response post-disaster, where communities plan for building or rebuilding; get schools, offices, child care and other systems back up that are required for day-to-day functioning; and bring critical services back on line, like roads, food supplies, water, and the government.

Finally, reconstruction is a process of longer-term rebuilding. Ideally, this includes innovation to ensure communities are “building back better,” and is an extremely integrated, wide-spectrum process that moves toward hardened infrastructure and sustainable processes. This happens after an assessment is done of the damage, and must be integrated into planning.

One example is in the Bahamas. Because they are unable to rebuild exactly the same as before the storm hit, the government is thinking about putting some infrastructure underground, like communication towers, to create some protection from the next storm.

How do you factor in climate change when considering ongoing efforts to prepare for and recover from natural disasters?

Well, what is a disaster? We have to think about that. I was listening to a story on NPR, the bird population of the U.S. shrank by one billion birds – that’s climate change. And even epidemics. Certain bacteria and invasive species thrive in certain temperatures. So it’s a disruption, not only of the human ecosystem, but also of the animal ecosystem.

When we talk about disasters, we tend to talk about natural disasters, but it’s so much bigger. We’re not even talking about man-made disasters, like terrorism or cyberattacks, which could be catastrophic. Those are disasters, too, but man-made.

Miami Beach, FL, August 2019, during Hurricane Dorian
Miami Beach, FL, August 2019, during Hurricane Dorian (photo: Rosty McFly | Shutterstock.com)

Given the trends in natural disasters associated with climate change (e.g., hurricanes and tropical storms are more frequent, and more frequently of record intensity levels), are there places that are becoming unlivable, or that should be abandoned?

Yes, there are places that should be abandoned. A lot of these countries, their populations are concentrated along the coast, and there are vulnerabilities. Like schools that are flooded in every single storm of course should not have been built where they are.

Are issues of rebuilding and relocation tied in with race and class?

These issues are very tied to rebuilding in many places. You can also look at a place like Flint – race, class and vulnerability are interlinked. Or Newark. Usually, African Americans, Latinos and other minorities are more vulnerable to these disasters. And it’s harder for the poorest communities to recover – the same event has a more drastic impact. The rich have more resources.

In island states, the line is more blurred. The interiors are more rugged, which means most people tend to locate along the coastline, so it’s not as clear-cut an issue as in, say, Hurricane Katrina. But there’s an issue of moral hazard; even knowing that it’s dangerous, people build anyway, knowing that somebody will help them to rebuild. Like the government, or insurance money. So people tend not to bother to plan for disasters.

However, organizations have been exploring insurance, like livelihood protection, for poorer people. For example, the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) pools resources from many countries in the region, who pay into this fund. They are disbursed to governments directly, to help pay for rebuilding. Commercial facilities might be getting out of disaster insurance, but others are stepping into that void.

Is there an ideal balance between recovery efforts provided by home governments versus outside aid?

I don’t know if there’s an ideal balance. Governments operate at different levels – national, regional, local, community, household – so we usually say that the government closest to the people should be equipped to help them. But what we find is that often the governments closest to the people are themselves incapacitated by whatever event took place, and they’re not able to help. And if you go one level higher, they may be able to help in some ways but not others, and so on. In cases like those, outside help is needed; the quantity depends on the issue.

Is there a useful role for individual aid?

There’s a useful role, but it’s hard to manage spontaneous volunteers. They may put themselves in harm’s way. Typically we say, go through an entity to help. Most agencies right now want money, because they can best divert it to where it’s needed. That may be potable water, or a sanitary facility, or helping women or children get out of situations where they’re more vulnerable thanks to the disaster. It may be a number of things.

When you talk about disaster planning, mitigation, risk reduction, it’s a big, involved process, and very complex. It’s hard to get a handle on it, but agencies do it. Their effectiveness depends on resources. And no one place has the level of resources needed. That’s why governance systems are important, to bring all these things together – the resources, money, people, institutions, laws, and the formal and informal arrangements that must be made to keep people safe.

Cover of book, Disaster Risk Governance by Denise ThompsonThis is obviously a vastly complex topic that touches on every area you can imagine. How do you write a book about that? Is your book more broad, or is it more of a tool?

The idea for the book came when I was doing a lot of work in the Caribbean and seeing a lot of money being spent, with a minimal return on investment. When the next event came, we were still dealing with the same issues. Activities were happening piecemeal, done by aid agencies, governments, the UN. And preexisting factors, like colonialism, undermined institutions. These were antecedents to what we’re seeing now, but we never could put them together, because we’re always trying to put out fires.

Disaster management systems happen in context of the country, and I realized that countries with weaker governance systems also have weaker disaster management systems. Governance is an umbrella term, comprising all the institutions, systems, actors and processes that come together around disasters.

So what I wanted to do was come up with a number of variables we could use to pinpoint areas we could shore up to improve disaster risk reduction and outcomes. I looked at institutions as a key component in that, like legislation, insurance, security. I also talked about labor policy, networks, economic investment – all these things may not be part of disaster policy, but they support it.

Why did you pick those four specific countries – two in the Caribbean, two in Sub-Saharan Africa – to feature in your book? Did you find some similarities there?

When I came into academia in 2008, there wasn’t much literature on poor countries. And that is not specific to disaster management. The voice was missing. I thought, if I looked at the sub-Sahara and the Caribbean, I would be better able to come up with a governance framework that actually works for developing or poorer countries.

The similarities I picked up are mostly in the institutional and informal aspects. For instance, indigenous peoples from the Caribbean and from Africa were similar in that they had communities with their own laws and customs that may be opposed to planning around disasters. Also, these countries have a legacy of corruption – not all poor countries, some rich countries have higher rates of corruption – but still, government ineffectiveness, government inaccessibility to their populations, these things were comparable. Those cause inefficiencies and waste in the system, they cause people to take longer to recover from disasters. It’s complex and messy.

In the book you have to try to manage the multiple components; you can’t write on everything but you can pick out the salient things. I hope that’s what I was able to do.

Is it disheartening, to see inefficiencies and to see problems getting larger every year, problems that we’ve caused ourselves and failed to find effective solutions to thus far?

Yes, but at the same time, we’re working more closely with communities, and households and individuals, and I think that’s where it has to happen. So while governments create the policies, the infrastructure and the systems, the ecosystem is bigger, with subsystems within it. If you work at the micro level, you can shore up the entire system.

In the Caribbean and in Africa, there are regional agencies that are the real workhorses and innovators – the East African Commission, the African Union, Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management System, CARICOM. CCRIF, for example, is one of the first in the world to push for countries to pool their resources. Other regions, like Southeast Asia, are doing a similar thing. All of these groups come together to actually build and pilot things.

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