Paul Radu is an Ashoka Fellow and the founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the world’s largest cross-border network of investigative journalists. He spoke with Corina Murafa, the co-leader of Next Now/Planet & Climate, about the link between organized crime and environmental damage, and what we can do about it.
Corina Murafa: How are organized crime and environmental issues connected?
Paul Radu: Organized crime is obviously about illegal activities, which are very opportunistic in nature. There are quite a few areas where they’re damaging the environment. Let’s take the drug trafficking industry. Lots of land is needed to cultivate drug-related crops, and very often traffickers are involved in illegal logging or polluting through shipping.
Also, when organized crime invests the money it makes, this is very often done in an illegal way. They build large buildings in natural habitats, picking some of the most beautiful regions on Earth to place their villas, because they really don’t care about rules. Organized crime works hand in hand with corruption. They corrupt local politicians to build in areas where they shouldn’t. They’re also able to convince politicians to open up new regions for mining or logging and all sorts of other damaging activities.
You can’t investigate organized crime without talking about the environment, because the environment is one of its main victims.
Murafa: So how do you fix this problem?
Radu: What we’re trying to do at OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) is to have an environmental side to all of our investigations. There’s a lack of information when it comes to the activities of organized crime harming the environment and investigative reporters can play an important role in solving this problem.
Investigating any illegal activity is very dangerous, because you can’t really go where the illegal operation takes place and expect those people to give you interviews. For instance, in illegal logging, what you need to do is use a drone within autonomy of at least five kilometers, that can put you at a safe distance from the place where the action is happening. You can monitor the zone and you can have an idea of what’s going on. Then, you couple that with satellite imagery over an area, a week or a month, and you can really see the extent of clearing. Once you gather this information, you get into tracking down the roads that lead there. These people would have to transport the illegal wood somehow and you get into finding out who owns those vehicles or where they are going. For this, you may use wildlife cameras that you can place on trees, some with infrared, some with noise activation, or airplane sensors to identify when planes are coming and leaving, and so on. All the signal intelligence from direct observation is then combined with open source intelligence. You go to databases and you find out that the trucks belong to a certain company, which has a contract with another company, so what you get to find is the supply chain from the illegal operation. Then, it’s really important to bring down the chain and to see exactly where these illegal goods are going, in order to be able to inform the public and to stop this from happening.
I believe that this is how things need to be done, but in a concerted way. If you develop a strategy, bring together investigative reporters and activists to monitor a region, with the proper tools, and combine the results from signal intelligence with what you get from databases, you can expose what’s actually going on with the organized crime operations.
Murafa: Is the world ready to address the connection between crime and environment?
Radu: There’s a huge clash right now. In many countries the political class is financially supported by organized crime and politicians want to open-up economically as much as possible. In theory, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but, in fact, they want to weaken all the environmental regulations. Politicians in these cases are after the quick game; they know that, by opening up some of these wildlife habitats, they can make money, they can gain votes from certain people, ignoring everything that’s been conserved up to that point. Humans have to leave. That’s their main reasoning. I think there’s this big clash between populist politicians and the citizens who now see that such environmental damage impacts their livelihoods as well. Even though we have more and more groups focused on the environment in a very meaningful way, people are making decisions that are not based on the broader context and that’s really bad for all of us.
Murafa: If there’s one thing that you really want to see happen in the next five years, what would it be?
Radu: On the investigative reporting and activism side, I want people to be more focused on the environment and to be a lot more proactive. What’s usually happening is that the reporting, be it from an NGO or investigative reporting organization, is post facto. We need to do more to stop organized crime from damaging the environment and this comes down to pattern recognition, to understanding more how organized crime affects the environment. There’s a huge need for more of the kind of correlation you can get through open source intelligence and signal intelligence. The game is to try to minimize the playground of organized crime as much as possible, so that you don’t leave them room for their creative criminal minds.
Paul Radu is co-founder and chief of innovation at OCCRP. He founded the organization in 2007 with Drew Sullivan. He leads OCCRP’s major investigative projects, scopes regional expansion, and develops new strategies and technology to expose organized crime and corruption across borders. He is an Ashoka Fellow and a Skoll Fellow.
Corina Murafa is co-leading Next Now/Planet & Climate and is also the Director of Ashoka Romania. Prior to joining Ashoka, she advanced long-lasting positive change in Eastern Europe as a public policy expert on energy and sustainability. She has worked for the World Bank, OMV Petrom, Deloitte, national governments and think tanks.
Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now/Planet & Climate connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 Part 8, Part 9 and Part 10 of our series.
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