Customs Operations Go Green
By Julio Godoy*
The United Nations is training police, attorneys and judges to halt global smuggling of dangerous substances and endangered species.
PARIS - The Fiji Department of Justice, for the first time in its history, ordered a local company and its president to pay fines for illegally importing and storing CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), a chemical that depletes the Earth's protective ozone layer.
The president of United Airco, Kim Bentley, admitted to the crime in January. The trial was held immediately after the Green Customs Project, of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), conducted a workshop with the customs staff of the Fiji islands, in the South Pacific, teaching them to identify illegal trade in harmful substances like CFCs.
The ruling ''is confirmation that our program works,'' the director of Green Customs, Rashenda Shende, told Tierramérica.
This UNEP initiative was launched in 2003 with the aim of coordinating prior efforts to control illegal trade, in accordance with international treaties like the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Disposal, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1989, was successful in sharply reducing production and use of CFCs in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems in industrialized countries, and gave developing countries until 2007 to follow suit.
This and other treaties promote monitoring of international trade in illicit substances. With the launch of Green Customs, the rigor and coordination of those controls has increased, Shende said.
The program will also play a central role in the implementation of the Rotterdam Convention (on prior informed consent and therefore reduction of trade in pesticides and other dangerous chemicals) and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
''We have launched a series of training programs for customs police to help them identify trade in illicit items, like CFCs or endangered species,'' Shende said.
''We are also promoting international cooperation so that the government that discovers a customs crime can inform the government in which the illegal trade originated, in order to prevent it from happening again. And we are training attorneys and judges to integrate departments of justice in our fight,'' he added.
According to unofficial calculations, illegal trade in dangerous chemical substances and endangered species moved at least 30 billion dollars in 2000.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based independent organization, says there is still excess production and trade of CFCs by industrialized countries, including Spain and Italy, which ''abuse'' the Montreal Protocol's exception for ''basic national demand'' for the chemical.
Its report predicts that CFC contraband will increase in the 113 developing countries that the treaty has ordered to reduce consumption of the substance.
The Green Customs program may be insufficient to meet its own objectives because its nominal budget for the 2003-2007 period is just two million dollars, of which ''only about 300,000 dollars have effectively been made available,'' according to Shende.
Despite these limitations, five new customs training workshops will be held this year, in Trinidad and Tobago, Georgia, South Africa, Bhutan and Syria.
The Trinidad and Tobago workshop, which marks the beginning of the program in Latin America and the Caribbean, is slated to take place in June. According to Miriam Vega, regional UNEP coordinator for the ozone unit, since 1999 mid-level customs officials have been trained to control entry of CFCs.
Vega told Tierramérica that 80 percent of Latin American and Caribbean countries have already undergone education intended to identify trade in ozone-depleting chemicals.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Diego Cevallos in Mexico.