GPS camera saves forest giant

In the jungles around the equator, criminologist Tim Boekhout van Solinge is using local residents and modern technology to combat illegal logging and deforestation.

Text: Mariëtte Huisjes

Green criminology is a rapidly emerging discipline aimed at the analysis and prevention of environmental crimes. Examples of this are waste discharges, poaching, trading in protected animal species, and illegal logging and deforestation. In recent years, combating such practices has been high on the international agenda, thanks to an acute extinction crisis and the increasing urgency of the climate issue.

One of the few experts who uses criminological methods to combat the illegal exploitation of natural resources around the equator is Tim Boekhout van Solinge. He led a five-year long project for the NWO-WOTRO-programma CoCooN (Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries) to combat human rights violations and environmental crime in the Lower Amazon basin in Brazil and a valley in the Andes. The project has now been completed but Boekhout van Solinge has not yet finished with the organised crime there. Through crowdfunding he managed to fund a follow-up project, which he is keen to tell us about.

Woudreus and Tim Boekhout (credits: Tim Boekhout van Solinge)

How did you end up in green criminology?

‘I‘ve written several books about European drugs policy but I've always also had a fascination for equatorial rainforests. They have the greatest biodiversity of any region on earth and millions of people live there with an ancient culture. However, a large-scale drama is now unfolding in these forests. As a result of deforestation, numerous animals are threatened with extinction. And as our project revealed, it is not just the animals. Land grabbing and water grabbing often lead to large-scale criminality as well; people are regularly intimidated or even murdered. I had already been to Brazil and Colombia to explore how we could help them. The CoCooN programme offered the opportunity to tackle the problems there.’

Could you help them?

‘Surprisingly well, especially because we worked intensively with the Brazilian and Colombian researchers and with local NGOs. They knew exactly what the problems were and could bring us into contact with local policymakers. We started by organising information meetings to inform people about their rights. They were largely unaware of these. You need to realise that the leaders of indigenous communities are often highly intelligent but have not learned to read or write, let alone have an understanding of legal or administrative issues. We subsequently brought together the local leaders, civil servants and state prosecutors. There is a lot of corruption in these countries but the state prosecutors can be trusted. The leaders can therefore approach them about any wrongdoing they observe. And, at the prosecutors' request, we trained them in criminology so that they could act more effectively.’

Isn't it a bit strange that Dutch people had to bring the parties together in Brazil and Colombia?

‘Not in the slightest, because as a purchaser of tropical products, the Netherlands is partly responsible for the abuses. For example, we are major users of soya from Brazil that we use to feed our pigs, chickens and cows. This creates an obligation. Furthermore, as outsiders we have more freedom to operate there than the other parties involved. And we not only focused on the countries of production but we also called upon the European diplomatic service to push for improved monitoring and transparent trade chains.’

The CoCooN project has now been completed. So why did you carry on with the work?

‘During my research I lived in a house on the beach for many months and I and saw the push boats arriving from the river fully laden with enormous tree trunks that were hundreds of years old. They were arriving at night, and so I knew that these forest giants were being illegally logged. I was itching to take more tangible steps to combat this. I thought it logical to involve local residents, which does not happen a lot. That is how I came up with the idea of equipping ten leaders with a GPS camera. It is a small-scale pilot but highly successful; both the local people and the judiciary are happy with it. The people go on armed patrols through the forest – they did that already to prevent the logging of large fruit trees that are home to the animals that they depend on for their existence. Now they can photograph the abuses and pass these on with GPS coordinates to the authorities. These coordinates are vital for the environmental inspectors so that they can use their satellite system to directly zoom in on the crime location. Sometimes a helicopter with police officers is sent there on the same day. With this approach you can effectively hamper the activities of the environmental criminals. The use of local communities and technology has now also been picked up on by Interpol as an effective method for eliminating crucial links in crime chains. The experiences from our CoCooN project are now being included in international measures.’