The case for global environmental law

We may think more readily of crimes against humanity — this is the call to prosecute crimes against the planet

By: /
21 October, 2015
Deforestation is seen in a village in Carhuaz in the Andean region of Ancash, November 28, 2014.REUTERS/ Mariana Bazo
Rupert Medd
By: Rupert Medd
Scholar and environmental expert

On September 1, 2014, indigenous eco-activist Edwin Chota, along with three others from his community, were murdered in Amazonian border regions in their attempts to halt illegal logging and the extraction of natural resources and forest wildlife. It was an echo of the high profile case of Chico Mendes, the rubber-tapper trade-union leader and environmentalist murdered in Acre, Amazonia, Brazil, in 1988.

Such brutality against those whose determination to protect the world’s ecosystems effects us all. They highlight and strengthen our cause for global environmental change and a legal system that must respond to, as well as represent, the world’s ecological crisis.

They also remind us of the continued call from the United Nations and the world’s premier Earth science institutions for humanity to take up its new role of “global stewardship” of the natural world. If such a role were formalized, it would support all those who have the courage, and have given their lives, to work together and to speak with one voice against environmental lawlessness. It would also allow for better prosecution of individuals, companies, or states who commit crimes against our planet. 

The case of the Brazilian Ezequiel Antônio Castanha, represents one such example when, earlier this year, he was exposed as having been responsible for “one of the biggest land clearance syndicates ever uncovered” and dubbed “Brazil’s King of Deforestation.” Castanha’s business investments included a supermarket, hotel and cars. They were reported  to be fronts for his violent and destructive operations within the Amazonian Forests that border the federal highway BR-163 in the northern state of Pará.  

Brazil’s environment ministry, IBAMA, stated that Castanha and his handful of cohorts were responsible for about 10 percent of the total deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2013 alone, and for half of all deforestation in the BR-163 region, which is equal to 20 percent of the total in Brazil. Although it was reported globally that Brazil’s deforestation rates had declined since 2004, it was  revealed earlier this year through the efforts of undercover reporting, and with the use of satellite imaging, that this is not true and high rates of deforestation persist. 

And here lies my purpose: Castanha’s case should no longer be considered under the jurisdiction of Brazil, but the global community, and by using a legal framework of environmental justice with a view toward securing “all future life on Earth” — for every human and every intricate aspect of the biosphere. 

Interviewees who spoke to The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts confirmed that Castanha has ignored £10.2 million of fines and that these “perpetrators have continued their activities with impunity.” His crimes against nature were so extreme, waged on such massive scales, that, it could be argued, they have put all life on Earth in peril. With the advanced and empirical evidence in the 21st century that is showing us the crippled condition of our planet, Castanha’s case should pave the way for new laws that make environmental criminals answerable to the global community. His fate ought to be determined by a legal system that is both informed and respectful of nature’s rights whilst being backed by the highly innovative research of the Earth Sciences, particularly that of the “Planetary Boundaries” school of thought. 

Adopting the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ framework

The “Planetary Boundaries Framework,” theorised by an international and interdisciplinary group of scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) in 2009 and revised in 2014, consists of nine potential thresholds: climate change; novel entities; stratospheric ozone depletion; atmospheric aerosol loading; ocean acidification; biogeochemical flows; freshwater use; and land-system change. Together they form a synthesis of the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of Earth. This acknowledges that Earth is a single complex and integrated system, functioning through interdependencies. 


Three of these nine boundaries — land-system change (deforestation/agriculture/damming), biosphere integrity (biodiversity losses and extinctions), and biogeochemical flows (industrial and agricultural processes/fertiliser usage) — are today at critical tipping point levels and adding to the equally critical and accumulative effects of climate change.

The latter is the top of the hierarchy of boundaries as it is connected to all other boundaries and operates at the level of the whole Earth system. We do not know the full consequences of transgressing tipping points, but we can assume that their effects will be long-lasting and serious.

The SRC’s leading scientist, Johan Rockström, states that “to stay within a safe operating space and guarantee future life on Earth, we need to keep 85 percent of all rainforest systems, 50 percent of all temperate forests and 85 percent of our boreal forests. Human destruction of rainforest systems alone — including biodiversity — is already at 62 percent, meaning a tipping point has been reached.”

Has Castanha really put all life and the future of the Earth in a situation of extreme peril? 

Yes. His vast destruction of rainforests not only contributes toward “tipping points” that are already determined as being “critical,” but he could have sent a weakened planet beyond any prospect of recuperation.

We should have created and enforced laws decades ago that take into account a history of nature and its rights. Some of the laws already exist, albeit applied regionally. For example, “Buen Vivir” in Bolivia, Ecuador and Southern Peru where nature is given its own history and is a central consideration to all policy-making.

More than 50 percent of the world’s genetic diversity is concentrated in rainforests and this boundary has been transgressed, meaning right now — today — the global rates of biodiversity extinctions have become a real and urgent concern for life to continue in to the future. We are facing a situation of human self-enclosure which has no chance of enduring. 

The wake up call from this malevolent nightmare has long since sounded and needs to grow much faster for global citizens to unite as a global network of confrontation against environmental lawlessness and the destructive elements of ruthless capitalism. As the United Nations IPCC Report states, “we know what should be done and we have the means to do it.” Overall, the report sheds light on the current lack of political will, language and ideas to address the severity of these issues.

Now reconsider what Castanha’s environmental violence — only one example of many similar crimes gone undeterred — signifies for a crippled planet in the 21st century. Then examine the following wording from the aforementioned UN IPCC:

Humanity has transgressed the Earth’s carrying capacity decades ago. Only an immediate stop to ecosystem destruction, as well as population control and large-scale restoration of ecosystems, might restore global biotic regulation and prevent collapse of ecosystems, including the human species.”

“If he remains in prison,” explained Daniel Azeredo, the lead prosecutor in Castanha’s case, “we expect a fall in deforestation rates. If he is released however, it is very likely that he will continue with the same activities, due to a sense of impunity and of course, because it is a very lucrative business.”

What should Castanha’s fate be, knowing that his actions have destroyed huge and critical ecosystems, carbon sinks, genetic diversity chains, fresh water and flow-dependent environments — all pushing us by leaps and bounds toward the overriding and dangerous boundary of “climate change”? Furthermore, what should the role of the international community be when confronting planetary criminals like Castanha?

In Brazil, in order to convict Castanha, “the authorities hope for more success by focussing on financial crimes, such as money laundering, counterfeiting, tax evasion and fraud,” Watts reported in The Guardian.

The fact that crimes against the Earth are not strong enough to prosecute here is extremely problematic.  This “hope” for success is not nearly good enough; it is ringing with the desperation of a battle that is already lost to legal and financial systems that have little environmental interest.

José Augusto Pádua, a professor of Brazilian environmental history (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) confirmed the severity of the stakes, writing in 2013: “Looking beyond the borders of Brazil itself, we are reminded that the Brazilian territory has ecological riches on a truly global scale, and the future trends of Brazilian history have a critical role to play in the fate of humanity and its environment in the twenty-first century.”

The rainforest as a special case

Understanding the gravity of environment crimes, in this case against the Amazon forests, requires a brief understanding of the historical context.

Telescoping a long 500 years of slave/cheap labour, unscrupulous capitalism and the shipping of resources to the centres of power, Peruvian sociologist, Aníbal Quijano, notes that “we are witnessing today similar phenomena to those that took place in the sixteenth century.”

Are we?

Alexander Von Humboldt, the Prussian and cosmopolitan naturalist, travelled for five years between 1799 and 1804 throughout Central and South America, wanting to explore the unity of nature. Mystified by falling water levels of Lake Tacarigua, Venezuela, local residents brought this worry to his attention in 1800. Humboldt’s analysis produced this conclusion: “By felling trees that cover the tops and sides of mountains men everywhere have insured two calamities at the same time for the future: lack of fuel, and scarcity of water.” 

Humboldt had made the fundamental connection between the health of sustainable ecosystems — due to the presence of trees, and desertification — caused by their indiscriminate felling. In Humboldt’s view, there was to be no separating of localised act from overall result; dependency on a natural system was total and it affected “men everywhere,” regardless of nationality, race, gender, status and class. By observing “two calamities…for the future,” Humboldt projected his environmental analysis onto a global canvas. “When forests are destroyed,” he wrote, “as they are everywhere in America by European planters, with imprudent haste, the springs dry up completely, or merely trickle…the clearing of forests, the absence of permanent springs, and torrents are three closely connected phenomena.” 

Over a century later, Irishman Roger Casement travelled for 75 days in 1910 along vast stretches of the Amazon River’s networks. He witnessed and recorded first-hand the culture-of-terror administered to Indigenous communities and nature — the integral parts of Latin America’s globalised rubber economy. He had stayed at the region’s main rubber stations along the 3,000km-long Putumayo River. Even before setting out from Iquitos, Peru, he wrote a worrying entry in his journal: “Anything may happen to me up there.”

Peru’s rubber-boom had its beginnings in the Putumayo River region in 1893 in response to the European motorcar industry. Iquitos quickly became the central trading river-post for all the rubber collected along the Putumayo River where the Peruvian Amazon Company’s production bases were stationed. Their prime assets included the possession of massive tracts of Amazon forests, extensive river systems stretching thousands of kilometres and anyone dwelling therein.

On his journey, Casement witnessed horrific scenes enacted by the company: “Buried in the wilds of a nameless forest in a debatable land claimed by two or three South American Republics… there is no one in the Putumayo empowered to investigate criminal acts… thus lamentable deeds have been committed with impunity,” he wrote. Casement noted how the rubber trees (Castilloa, Sapium, Hevea, Manihot and Ficus) were all “hacked to death,” resulting in “An entire industry ruthlessly killed in a decade.”

The similarities being shown here between Casement’s experiences in 1910 and the continued exploitation of the Amazon forests and its people today are striking.

Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s official responsible for the Castanha case described how “they threatened to set fire to the IBAMA office, stole confiscated equipment and committed homicides. They are very dangerous and highly organised.” Prosecutors confirmed that murder investigations involving Castanha were underway, but local people were too afraid to talk. Regional police chief, Everaldo Eguchi, told local media that the supermarket boss was “practically the owner of the city.”

“I see no hope for the Amazon under Peru at all, and very little for the Amazon under Brazil,” Casement wrote as final reflections back in 1910.  Joseph Conrad, the master of anti-imperialist literature, wrote that Casement “could tell you things! Things I’ve tried to forget; things I never did know.”

Today, we all do know.  

The aforementioned United Nations IPCC Report is before us all:

The following 2050 picture is an optimistic view of the consequences of continuing as in the past….fewer forests; global collapse of ocean fisheries; accelerated increase in GHG emissions and global warming; continued loss of biodiversity; massive human interference with the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles well beyond safe thresholds; and a resurgence of resource-related conflicts.

Will adopting a legal framework to prosecute such crimes open a floodgate of cases to investigate? How will such laws be enforced? New regional and international bodies will certainly be needed to monitor them. In December 2015, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is expected to adopt a binding agreement on the new “sustainable goals” for the world’s countries, including proposals on how to finance developing countries until 2050. It is also hoped that the serious issue of environmental lawlessness on these scales will be addressed, and regional environmental and international monitoring agencies will be given the correct amount of funding, personnel, technology, and laws so as to begin tackling them head on.

But if we brush over environmental crimes and allow impunity for cases such as Castanha’s, then, in turn, we shall be bypassing the threat that he has posed to all life on Earth. It will continue to permit individuals to safeguard their criminal actions and interests in the interconnected financial-legal power structures — and right up until the last tree comes crashing down. But even before this terrible moment is reached, Humboldt’s warning of global water scarcity will have become very real.

We shall all ask how we failed to react to the prevailing science, to take up the cause of global stewardship, to give nature effective rights, and to confront this destruction of a beautiful, unique and mega diverse planet. We shall ask to what end did all our universities, communication technologies, power structures and NSA grassers serve us?

And where has the “Little Prince” gone in our imaginations?  

Thanks to: Walter Wust, Billy and Tiki Kyte, Elena C. Goycochea, Dr Antonio Brack-Egg, Emory Richey, Global Witness, Sandra Nava, Ximena and Paco Maurial, Sociedad Geográfica de Lima, Profs Johan Rockström and Bo Söderström, and Eva Salinas.

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