Chinese Customs Officers Train to Detect Environmental Crimes

SHANGHAI, China, May 18, 2007 Specialized training to help customs officers deal with environmental crimes is being intensified in the Asia Pacific region with help from experts in China. Worldwide, environmental crime and illegal trade is, by some estimates, valued at more than US$100 billion a year.

The initiative, involving the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, and the secretariats of the multilateral environment agreements, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the World Customs Organization, and Interpol, is aimed at equipping customs officials with the skills and know-how to address this growing problem.

Chinese customs officers are on the lookout for smugglers of endangered species, hazardous waste and ozone depleting substances. (Photo courtesy Government of China)
A workshop taking place this week at the Shanghai Customs College aims to train the trainers from regional customs agencies. The training emphasizes cooperation that is expected to become a lasting partnership between China customs officials and the other partners.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said at the meeting, "Customs are in the frontline, expected to maximize the benefits society can derive from the globalized trading system while also expected to minimize the risks and threats that trade can pose - threats from illegal trade in banned or restricted chemicals up to managing movements of living modified organisms and the illegal trade in rare and endangered wildlife."

He said China, with some 50,000 customs officials and an increasingly important role in international trade and global political life, could make a key contribution in this field.

Currently China Customs operates at 253 first-class ports - including airports, sea ports and land passes - approved by the central government and around 200 second-class ports approved by provincial governments.

China has a land border 22,000 kilometers (13,670 miles) long and a sea border of 18,000 kilometers (11,184 miles).

Russian and Chinese border guards on the Manchurian border. (Photo courtesy Vincent Malic)
The customs officials and border guards must attempt to detect smuggling of endangered species and their parts, controlled chemicals, and hazardous waste, among other contraband.

A wide range of chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants and chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, are now controlled, banned or subject to phaseouts under multilateral environmental agreements.

These measures are aimed at protecting public health and the wider environment but also present opportunities for unscrupulous individuals and organized crime which the Green Customs Initiative seeks to address.

The Green Customs Initiative was created in June 2003 when UNEP and the World Customs Organization signed an agreement to foster stronger ties between the two organizations on environmental enforcement issues.

The initiative focuses on training border guards to better spot and apprehend criminals trafficking in environmental commodities.

The training is begining to show results.

China Customs seized nearly 8.2 metric tons of dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12), an ozone depleting substance used in refrigerant and air conditioning systems, between September 1 and November 30, 2006. The seizures were made in Guandong Province - 752 kilograms in Shengzhen and 7.5 metric tons at Huanpu Port.

International trade in ozone depleting substances is banned by the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that addresses the holes in the Earth's protective ozone layer caused by the emission of chemicals containing chlorine and bromine.

"Months after he attended a workshop in Wuxi, China, a Chinese customs officer in Huanpu Port intercepted the illegal ozone depleting substances using methods he learned there," said Ludgarde Coppens, policy and enforcement officer, UNEP.

"It is encouraging to see that our training efforts, involving customs and enforcement officers in the 18 participating countries is beginning to have payoffs," Coppens said.

The CFC-12 seizures were part of Project Skyhole Patching, a Chinese initiative to combat illegal trade in ozone depleting substances and hazardous waste in the Asia Pacific region that began September 1, 2006.

It involves 20 customs and environmental authorities from 18 countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Maldives, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Since the project began, customs in Hong Kong, India and Thailand have played an active role in sharing information on ozone depleting substances. Some countries like Vietnam and Cambodia are holding bilateral discussions on illegal trade in ozone depleting substances.

"This timely information exchange among customs and environmental agencies in these countries has helped to monitor the movement of ODS in the region as well as other regions" said Liu Xiaohui, head of Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Project Sky Hole Patching is now in its second phase focusing on hazardous waste, which began March 1. Phase 1 of the project focused on ozone depleting substances.

Meanwhile treaties such as the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, cover trade in wildlife.


Clothing trimmed with skins of endangered leopards for sale in a shop in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region. 2006. (Photo courtesy TRAFFIC)
The CITES trade regulations are part of a range of international measures to allow legitimate trade in animals and plants and restrict or outlaw trade in species under threat of extinction. Customs officers are always on the lookout for smugglers of Asian big cats, which are all endangered.

Sometimes, they are successful. Between 1999 and 2005, Chinese customs officers seized 80 tiger skins and 31 skeletons, 744 leopard skins and six skeletons, and 19 snow leopard skins and one skeleton, according to a 2006 report published on the website of the China CITES Management Authority.

In the largest seizure, on October 9, 2003, the Customs Service of the Tibet Autonomous Region seized a cargo of 1,392 animal pelts in Sangsang, near the Purang Pass on the China-Nepal border. The haul included 31 tiger skins and 581 leopard skins.

Steiner said it is impressive that a treaty like CITES has, over the decades, become as relevant to the work of customs officials as tackling illegal trade in arms, drugs, and trafficking in human beings.

Steiner said, "For UNEP, working with organizations like the World Customs Organization, Conventions, national governments and customs colleges in order to empower professionals to carry out their work to even higher standards, is a critical part of our work."

For more on the Green Customs Initiative see the ENS story of June 2003: Green Customs Initiative Offers Officers New Tools