Why Ecocide Should Now Be Considered An International Crime Against Humanity

Why Ecocide Should Now Be Considered An International Crime Against Humanity

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Much like war criminals, leaders who commit or facilitate ecocide are acting against the best interests of humanity as a whole.

To put it bluntly, human civilization would have a hard time surviving without the Amazon rainforest—let alone all other rainforest currently under simultaneous attacks from industry and climate-driven wildfires. The stakes are high here, and if there ever was a time to officially condemn the deliberate mishandling of our planet's essential natural resources, it's now. 

Some decades ago, we didn't have the term "genocide" or "war crime" in our vocabulary. Yet the introduction of these notions into international affairs turned the face of politics on its head, and gave global institutions the means to more efficiently deal with injustice beyond the borders of particular nations. 

It's time, then, to introduce the same level of condemnation for actions against nature that put the whole world at risk, introducing the notions of "ecocide" and "environmental crime" officially into the vocabulary of international bodies—and they should be on precisely the same standing as genocide and war crimes.

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

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Ecocide as an international crime against humanity

Now, many international bodies already acknowledge certain kinds of environmental crimes. For instance, the United Nations Environment Programme, Interpol, European Union, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute and the G8 all recognize the following activity as officially criminal:

  • Dumping and illicit trade in hazardous waste
  • Illegal wildlife trade in endangered species
  • Illegal and unregulated fishing
  • Use and smuggling of ozone-depleting substances
  • Illegal logging and stolen timber trade that violates national laws.

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

Yet the destruction of ecological environments crucial for humanity’s (and other species’) survival, whether deemed illegal or not by a particular country,  is not on the list. You’d think it would be the worst crime and the single most important item to include in the first place, right?

Hazardous waste disposal, for instance, can destroy a community, which is terrible. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest can destroy entire civilizations—which is nothing short of apocalyptic. If we include the former on these lists, surely we must include the latter as well.

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So, it's important to talk about ecocide beyond nationalistic terms, no longer constrained by territorial jurisdiction. We need to talk about it as an international prerogative. Remember that the sovereignty of a given country stops where the survivability of the whole human race is at stake. As journalist Stefan Simanowitz writes,

"In order to stop such wanton destruction in Brazil and around the world, it is surely time to recognise ecocide – destruction of the environment or ecosystem – as an international crime. It should not be necessary to name something for it to become real but, as with genocide, a word can help encompass the enormity of a horror that might otherwise be too great to imagine." 

And just like any world leader who commits genocide is nowadays legitimately and rightfully called a war criminal by international standards, so too should any leader who deliberatively disregards the conservation of key ecosystems and actively encourages their destruction be called an environmental criminal. And make no mistake: environmental criminals are indeed committing a crime against humanity.

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

Why is it important?

Let's talk about the Amazon for a moment, as an example of what's at stake here. During his campaign, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro vowed to strip the Amazon rainforest of its federal protections to promote land exploitation and industry. The Brazilian people still elected him.

And he delivered on his promise not only by stripping the rainforest of any measure that would keep it safe, but by actively encouraging land-grabbers to take down vast regions of the forest that were previously off-limits. He basically sent people and companies from the mining, logging, and farming industries to strip the Amazon bare and burn it to prepare new fields to be exploited—and things spiraled at a speed never seen before in the country.

During July alone, deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest increased by a whopping 278%, a number that's sure to be toppled in August. And it was all too much to hide, despite Bolsonaro's best efforts. He may have fired the head of the space agency responsible for monitoring satellite images—the person who pointed out how evident the destruction was—but the Brazilian president couldn't hide it from the rest of the world.

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

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With the fires producing massive smoke columns that can be seen from orbit, other countries could quickly assess the sheer size of the devastation through their own agencies and satellites—and what the world saw was nothing short of terrifying.

With the entire planet relying so heavily on the Amazon rainforest for its well-being (remember the Amazon produces 20% of the world's oxygen and is a major factor for absorbing carbon dioxide), the conservation of this precious environment is an international affair.

This issue has gone far beyond nationalistic pride, despite what people like Bolsonaro would have you believe: the Amazon does not belong to Brazil. It belongs to the entire planet—to millions of species and living beings whose very survival depends on it, including humanity as a whole. Yet, we're still acting as if it were Brazil's prerogative how to handle its care. That gives Bolsonaro way more power over the lives of everyone on the planet than he should have. 

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

Consider that, according to most estimates, if we lose more than 20-25% of the Amazon rainforest, a cascading effect would trigger that could transform the rest of the region into a barren savannah in a matter of years. This would devastate the planet, depriving us of a major source of oxygen and releasing more than 140 billion tons of CO2 straight into the atmosphere. And we've already lost 20% of the rainforest at this point.

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Losing the entire Amazon would certainly hurt Brazil. The country's crop yields would drop by 50% due to reduced rainfall—which is something not even Bolsonaro would want. But it would also devastate many other countries, according to several studies. America, for example, would experience significant less rain too, altering its climate almost beyond recognition.

Overall, losing the Amazon would probably add a further 0.3ºC to global temperatures—which is massive on a planetary scale. That would drive us closer to the limit of what human civilization could possibly survive in the long run.

So, yeah. It's a big deal. For everyone. At this point, international intervention is sorely needed to operate above national sovereignty. The UN and other international bodies should declare the Amazon off-limits to any sort of industry, and aid farmers move into different markets.

ecocide international environmental crime against humanity

In short, just as we have talked about war crimes and genocides to condem political figures who act against humanity, we must now talk about environmental crimes and ecocide to do the same.

Here are some other articles that might interest you:
Devastating Fires Are Ravaging The Amazon, And Humans Are To Blame
Trump's New Laws Endanger American Species Like Bald Eagles And Grizzly Bears
350 Million Trees In 12 Hours: Ethiopia's Crazy Environmental Feat