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Environmental crime encompasses a wide range of activities and behaviours that produce environmental harm. These activities range from careless behaviour to those of a more deliberate nature. The first true environmental laws were not enacted in Australia until the 1970s and in the 40 years since then, a plethora of statutes have been introduced to proscribe behaviours deemed harmful to the environment. These laws restrict polluting and waste disposal practices, ban the trade in, and exploitation of, protected faunal (animal) and floral (plant) species, regulate recreational and commercial fishing, prohibit unauthorised clearance of native vegetation, promote sustainable forestry and circumvent illegal logging and reverse past practices of water overuse. During the past 40 years and particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been growing concern about the environment, greater acceptance of the need for its protection and for the punishment of those found in breach of environmental laws. A number of current environment issues, such as the impact of climate change, the ongoing drought in southeast Australia and the desperate state of the Murray-Darling Basin (and other water resources), has arguably intensified this disquiet.

Nonetheless, environmental crime is an area of criminal activity that has existed just below the research radar in Australia. There have been occasional waves of research attention, mostly examining existing and best-practice models of regulation and sanctioning, but little attempt has been made to describe the actual prevalence of environmental crime in Australia. Also missing are inquiries into to the scale, mechanics and mindsets of offending, the sorts of harmful behaviours normally perpetrated and the impact (if any) of current methods of enforcement and punishment in preventing or halting practices that produce environmental degradation.

In recent years, the work of a number of Australian scholars has contributed to filling in these research gaps. This report adds to this small but growing collection by providing a comprehensive overview of environmental crime as it is perpetrated, detected and dealt with in Australia. Employing a stocktake of existing literature, the report summarises for the first time what is known about the current status of different typologies of environmental crime and the international, national and state/territory controls in place to deter harmful practices. The report also highlights the difficulties in monitoring and detecting environmental crimes and describes to what extent penalties are meted out (and to what effect). The variability in information gathered means that the report cannot estimate which of the environmental crimes are most commonly committed, nor the accumulated harms these crimes produce. It does, however, present commentary on, and can be used to identify, different motivations and the offender groups associated with different categories of environmental crime, the inherent risks for continuing or escalating behaviour and how this might intersect with current laws and regulatory approaches. Environmental crimes are often difficult to recognise or detect, and it is apparent that as a result this area has experienced a belated approach to developing appropriate sanctions. While the report acknowledges calls for a move away from traditional penalties to that of alternative sanctions (eg restoration and rehabilitation orders) and the incorporation of the tenets of restorative justice, it also recognises that a reinvigorated approach to prevention might provide the real key to reducing environmental crime. The prevention of environmental crime clearly warrants further research attention.

Adam Tomison

Last updated
3 November 2017