Kenya: In Kenya, Customs Officers Target Environmentally Sensitive Commodities

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In 2020, a Kenyan multi-agency law enforcement team, including customs officials, intercepted a package at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Agents were suspicious of the shipment, so they opened it up and found two rudimentary bird sculptures. Each, they soon discovered, was filled with live black giant ants – prized in some parts of the world as exotic pets. The shipment was a direct violation of Kenyan law, which requires permits for the export of live wild animals.

The seizure was one of many recently carried out by Kenyan authorities charged with monitoring the illegal international trade in environmentally sensitive commodities.

Since 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), under the Green Customs Initiative, has partnered with the Kenya School of Revenue Administration (KESRA) to support this work. The organization has helped enhance the capacity of customs and frontline officers monitoring trade in environmentally sensitive commodities, including animals, rare woods, and toxic chemicals.

At the heart of these efforts is a team of women led by Alice Kananu, a customs trainer, Latifa Said and Marion Nekesa. These women consistently highlight the importance of environmental protection with regular training activities for newly recruited and seasoned customs officers, who include 545 women.

“I would encourage women to be consistent and stay on course,” said Kananu. “They should be willing to keep learning and developing new competencies throughout their careers to ensure that they remain effective in their roles.”

A growing problem

The international trade of environmentally sensitive commodities is a problem with serious consequences. UNEP’s research shows that it threatens human health and the environment, contributes to species loss, deprives governments of revenues, and undermines the success of international environmental agreements.

Today, environmental crime, including illegal trade in environmentally sensitive commodities, is the fourth-largest criminal activity in the world, growing at a rate of between 5 per cent and 7 per cent per year.

UNEP has estimated the value of the illegal global wildlife trade at $US7 billion to US$23 billion. Illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade can increase human and animal health risks in some cases, given that 75 per cent of all new and emerging human infectious diseases are transmitted from wild animals to humans. The trade of illegal ozone-depleting substances also threatens the recovery of the ozone layer and exacerbates climate change; just one ton of the refrigerant CFC-12 has the same impact as 2,300 cars driven for a year. Additionally, it is estimated that the value of illegally traded mercury is in the range of US$100 – 215 million annually.

On the frontline

Customs authorities are at the frontline of facilitating and monitoring international trade. They ensure that any goods entering or leaving their countries are compliant with national laws. For example, customs authorities can ensure that hazardous wastes and chemicals are not being illegally disposed of in their countries or prevent ozone-depleting substances from being used in a country.

As part of this work, KESRA and UNEP administered a needs assessment survey to Kenyan customs officers stationed at major border points. The results illustrated a lack of awareness on the trade of environmentally sensitive commodities and that this subject area is not covered adequately in current national customs training.

Stationed at the coast of Kenya, Martha Musawale, a customs officer who often encounters live fish and crustaceans at the port, said, “I would like to learn more on how to identify endangered species of marine life and organic pollutants. This is important in my role as team leader and it will enable me to provide the required guidance to partner government agencies involved in the clearance of these consignments.” Musawale says that the preservation of animal species in the Kenyan coastal waters will contribute to the protection of society and promote economic sustainability.

People involved in this illegal trade use newer methods of concealment which requires specific knowledge and skills to detect.

Rebecca Kamau, customs officer

Training sessions

To combat the trade in environmentally sensitive commodities, Kananu and her team organized an information session for customs officers to highlight the needs assessment findings and introduce the officers to the idea of green customs. They invited UNEP representatives to take participants through the basics of trade-related Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and their procedures. The course also explored the role that customs and border control officers can play in enforcing the agreements.

“People involved in this illegal trade use newer methods of concealment, which requires specific knowledge and skills to detect,” said Rebecca Kamau, a Kenyan customs officer. “A course on green customs is going to greatly benefit me and other customs officers.”

Kananu and her team are developing a green customs curriculum to be integrated into the regular customs training programme. This will be an inclusive and consultative process that will engage key stakeholders. The draft curriculum is expected to be validated by national experts and rolled out by the end of 2021. It will cover critical issues, such as legal obligations under trade-related MEAs, identification and classification of environmentally sensitive commodities, and health and safety issues related to the commodities.

Customs officers will regularly receive this training which will enhance their effectiveness in the identification, monitoring and interception of illegal shipments while at the same time facilitating legal trade.

Looking ahead, KESRA will continue to collaborate with UNEP in ensuring a seamless rollout of the green customs curriculum. In the long-term, UNEP and KESRA intend to collaborate with other national training institutions in East Africa to promote green customs.