Are sanctions effective enough to reduce environmental crimes?
Since the dawn of civilisation, people have been dependent on the environment for everything. To make economic development, natural resources have been exploited continuously as if there were no tomorrow. It looks like we have forgotten that environmental resources are limited.
In this modern era of environmental justice, after realising that serious damage is being caused to the environment worldwide, nationally, and internationally, different steps have been taken to protect the environment, e.g., adopting rigorous national laws and binding international conventions and imposing criminal liability for environmental wrongs. When criminal penalties are prescribed for an environmental wrong under law, such wrong is called an environmental crime, i.e., environmental crimes refer to the crimes which occur due to the violation of environmental laws, which damage the ecological condition of nature besides the health of humans. From generating pollution and harmful wastes, to unlawful hunting and trade of wildlife, all fall under the category of environmental crimes.
The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) of environmental law implies that the polluter must pay compensation for the damage that he caused to the environment and human health through pollution. By way of wider interpretation of the PPP, not only compensation, but different kinds of criminal sanctions are also given, such as- penalties, emission fees, imprisonment, and pollution tax. Hence, it can be said that the PPP, through gradual expansion, gave birth to the concept of environmental criminal liability.
Being a party to the Rio Convention, Bangladesh has enacted several domestic legislations for protection of the environment. Some of the crucial legislations are- Environment Conservation Act, 1995, Environment Conservation Rules, 1997, Environment Court Act, 2010, Biodiversity Act, 2017, Forest Act, 1927 and Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012. The wrong-doers have been made criminally liable under many provisions of these Acts.
Environmental Conservation Act, 1995 is an effective legislation which incorporates sufficient sanctions to stop individuals and companies from committing environmental crimes. Section 15 of the said Act states the punishments for different environmental crimes. Under this Act, punishment for release of extreme pollutants is imprisonment for minimum 1 year or fine of maximum Tk. 2 lac or both. Section 17 gives the sufferer the right to sue for compensation too.
Forest Act, 1927 prescribes the offences against, and actions taken, in order to preserve forest assets. It also prescribes criminal punishments for many of such offences. Section 62 of the Act describes about the punishment for counterfeiting or defacing marks on trees and timber and for altering boundary marks which is minimum two years of imprisonment and maximum seven years and fine not less than Tk. 10, 000.
The main purpose of the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012 is to preserve the wildlife of the country. This Act also prescribes criminal penalties i.e. imprisonment and fine for various environmental crimes, like slaughtering of migrant birds and wild animals. Section 36 of the Act prescribes punishment of illegal killing of tigers and elephants which as punishable with up to 7 years imprisonment; in case of a repeated offence, the punishment can be extended to 12 years imprisonment.
In Bangladesh, there are 210 laws and regulations to protect the environment and punish the perpetrators of environmental wrongs. Moreover, there are 3 environmental courts in Bangladesh to punish for the environment-related crimes. Despite the existence of these rigorous laws and courts of law, deforestation, capturing lands and water bodies, unlawful hunting and trade of wildlife, the numbers of these environmental crimes are getting higher. Consequently, the constitutional right to environment and right to life are continuously getting violated.
As stated, there are 3 environmental courts in Bangladesh for trying the environmental crimes. However, only a few cases are being filed there. There are many reasons for the low number of cases before environmental courts. Firstly, there is no direct access to the Environment Court for individuals and corporations. A person has to go through different administrative hurdles in order to file a case in the environmental court. By filing a complaint in the Department of Environment (DoE) only, one can access the environmental court.
Secondly, there is delay in the submission of investigation report by the DoE. That is because, environmental misconducts need comprehensive inquiries with scientific knowledge and technical support. But the DoE has inadequate manpower. Moreover, many of them are not well experienced, and have little scientific knowledge on the environmental issues. in addition to that, lack of sufficient training, technical support, and operational guidelines delay the investigation as well as the entire proceedings.
Thirdly, due to the complex litigation system as well as delay in the litigation stage, very few people are interested in fighting for environmental justice. Because of the procedural complications in the environmental courts, in most of the cases, the witnesses do not come to testify at the trial. Consequently, there is no witness, and environmental criminals are being freed.
The prevailing culture of impunity is the main reason which encourages the individuals and industries to continue with violation of environmental laws. In other words, the lack of enforcement has made the sanctions prescribed under environmental laws ineffective to reduce environmental crimes. To make the criminal sanctions effective and stop the environmental crimes, we must ensure the following things: 1. all environmental crimes are reported to the environmental courts, 2. all environmental crimes are properly investigated by the DoE, 3. all environmental crimes are properly tried by the environmental courts, 4. upon such trial, appropriate sanctions are awarded against the perpetrators, and 5. such sanctions, e.g., imprisonment, fine, tax penalty are speedily executed.
For attainment of this goal, firstly, by way of amending law, individuals should be given direct access to the environment court, procedural complexities of the Environment Court should be reduced; the environmental courts should be given full control to try every environmental case. Secondly, the investigators of the DoE should be appointed from among qualified persons, and they should be trained properly. Besides, necessary machinery and labs should be provided to DoE to conduct investigations smoothly and submit reports on time. Effective watchdog teams should be established. Specific operational guidelines ought to be formulated.
In conclusion, proper implementation of existing environmental laws and policies and introduction of new necessary tactics are needed for protecting environment and human health.
The writer is student of law, North South University.