The Impact of Organized Crime on Natural Resources

Written by: Regina Paulose

There are different variables which create resource wars. One variable is who controls the resource. Organized criminal groups have gained a foothold in the economic market by exploiting natural resources. As the status quo illustrates, criminal activity thrives in an environment rich in resources. The acquisition over natural resources allows these groups to increase profit, acquire weapons, and expand territorial control.[1] There are a couple of reasons for the strong presence of organized criminal networks in the natural resource trade.

In some cases, criminal networks have more power and are larger than legitimate government entities. Afghanistan has an untapped mineral reserve which is currently estimated at $1 trillion (USD). The smuggling, trafficking, and sales of precious stones and minerals such as marble, have allowed militant groups to fundraise to support their criminal agendas. In 2005, the Afghan Mining Ministry reported that 80% of these mines are controlled by rogue commanders or criminals.[2]  Nearby, in the Philippines, where 1 million troy ounces of gold was produced in 2011, 90 percent of the gold was smuggled out of the country in to the black market. Customs officials report that they cannot control the large scale smuggling which continues to occur.[3]

Even in cases where the state is strong and present, traffickers are able to manipulate geography and people to advance their objectives. In Columbia, traffickers, which are compromised of drug cartels and armed paramilitary groups, conduct illegal mining for tungsten and coltan. Indigenous tribes suffer from human rights abuses at the hands of these criminal groups because the minerals are found on tribal land.  While the Columbian government has successfully seized shipments of tungsten and coltan, these groups continue to pose a national security concern to the Government.[4]

The natural resource market is diverse. Recently, the UNODC reported that timber from Asia to Europe accounts for criminal revenues of $3.5 billion dollars annually, which contributes to deforestation, loss of habitat and species, an increase in rural poverty, and climate change. Trade in animals parts such as rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger parts are estimated to be worth $75 million. [5]  Oil smuggling or “bunkering” leads to an illicit income of approximately $1 billion.[6] The diversity in trade means that governments will have to devote many resources to patrolling their borders, on land, air, and sea. This poses a significant challenge if governments do not have enough financial resources, a shortage in personnel, or if corruption within the government is rampant.

In many cases, weak governance allows villains to operate effectively. Sometimes natural resources are destroyed to allow for villains to operate their business effectively. In the Petén region of Guatemala, a notable absence of a state presence has allowed a narcotics pipeline to exist. “Narco cattle ranches” have cropped up, clearing forests in order to build airstrips to transport cocaine and other illegal commodities.[7]

In the grand scheme of things, as these groups create scarcity through illicit trade, resources will dwindle. As nation states begin to realize that they must acquire and preserve natural resources, organized criminal groups will also be part and parcel to conflicts, potentially exacerbating these situations in an effort to continue their illegitimate control.

Solutions are within reach. Proactive governments can deter the exploitation of natural resources and prevent large scale conflicts from erupting. Nation states should work together in unity to combat these criminal groups, through the use of treaties such as UNTOC and UNCAC. In addition, the public should hold companies who engage in business with organized criminal groups accountable. The trafficking and smuggling of natural resources affects the entire world and has severe consequences if it continues to go unchecked.

[1] Douglas Farah, Transnational Crime, Social Networks and Forests: Using Natural Resources to Finance Conflicts and Post Conflict Violence, PROFOR,  accessed at:

[2] Matthew DuPee, Afghanistan’s Conflict Minerals: The Crime-State-Insurgent Nexus, (Feb 2012), accessed at:

[3] Rosemarie Francisco, Special Report: Phillipine’s Black Market is China’s Gold Connection, Chicago News Tribune, (August 22, 2012) accessed at:

[4] Ignacio Gomez, Columbia’s Black Market Coltan Tied to Drug Traffickers, Paramilitaries, The Center For Public Integrity, (March 4, 2012) accessed at:

[5] UNODC, Action against Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Trafficking, including Drug Trafficking  2011-2013, (April 2011),

[6] Africa Economic Development Institute,

[7] Douglas Farah, Transnational Crime, Social Networks and Forests: Using Natural Resources to Finance Conflicts and Post Conflict Violence, PROFOR,  accessed at: