“Environmental crimes are a threat to coming generations. It’s a motivation to do better”

Henrik Forssblad grew up in the town of Hudiksvall in the north of Sweden. The town is in a region of forests and lakes, and Forssblad believes that the surroundings he grew up in inspired him to pursue a career fighting environmental crime as a police officer. Over the course of a police career spanning four decades, he has over 20 years’ experience specialised in fighting environmental crime. Forssblad has been working at EUPOL COPPS as the Environmental Crime Adviser since March 2020.

“Whether you are in Palestine or Sweden, or indeed anywhere else, environmental crimes have a big impact on people’s lives,” the Swedish expert says. “In many cases, environmental crimes are a threat to coming generations. That’s a motivation for us to do better”.

Specialised police officers and units dedicated to fighting environmental crime are a relatively new development in most jurisdictions. It is an area that is also rather new for the Palestinian Civil Police (PCP), which is trying to boost its capacity in this field, including with the help of international partners such as EUPOL COPPS.

In Forssblad’s view, the fact that specialised action in fighting environmental crime is a new area presents something of an advantage. “As it’s new for police authorities, it’s easier to make changes for the better,” he says. “Often you can come forward with simple solutions, such as building frameworks for cooperation with other government agencies, that have a big impact. Palestine could become a role model, because there is an eagerness to address this problem”.

The Swedish expert is passionate about his work. “You can see the health effects of environmental crime on people – the short- and long-term effects of pollution,” he says. “Cancer, breathing problems, a lack of drinking water for example. If you destroy a water source, often you don’t realise until it happens how important it is to have available drinking water”.

Over the course his many years as a police officer, he has seen the effects of environmental crimes not only in his native Sweden, but also in international deployments. He worked in Croatia before the country joined the EU, as part of efforts to support local police forces meet their target of reaching EU standards in the fight against environmental crime. Croatia now has one of the most ambitious frameworks for fighting environmental crime, though Forssblad modestly notes that his role was just training local law enforcement officers. He also worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

“Environmental crime is similar everywhere,” Forssblad says. “Fighting drug crime can depend on local laws and cultural context, but the models used to fight environmental crime don’t differ much from country to country.”

“In Palestine, like in other countries, you have problems with illegal dumping of waste, sometimes hazardous waste in different areas. This creates threats to water sources and health hazards to nearby citizens. You also have wastewater leakage into public and private facilities, discharged randomly and against Palestinian law. There is the issue of abandoned cars, tyres and damaged vehicle parts that are dumped in a way that leads to leakage and threats to human health. You also have quarries which pollute their surroundings. Another problem is the burning of hazardous waste – this can lead to serious health complications”.

He is clear that it is important to create a deterrence for companies that otherwise might have incentives to break the law, “It’s an important ambition to step up the conviction rate, because that is a preventive measure. Companies that don’t follow the rules save money. That creates unfair competition between companies. If there’s no risk of being caught, few companies will follow the rules, because it affects their profits”.

Forssblad also emphasises that raising public awareness is key, and praises the PCP’s ambition to inform Palestinians about the importance of the environment and the effects of environmental crimes. “Everyone who has been to Palestine can see that there seems to be a lack of awareness about environmental crimes. Small crimes, each one not so serious in itself, can together become a big problem. I like the fact that the PCP has a role to enlighten the public about the consequences of not following the rules”.

“It’s also easy to criticise the public, for example for abandoning their cars, which can cause a problem for the water supply” the Swedish expert adds. “But there might not be alternatives – it might be difficult to do the right thing. Environmental crimes are often a result of the fact that it is difficult or expensive to the right thing. You need to make it easy to do the right thing”.

In his experience, one of the big steps that Sweden made in fighting environmental crime having environmental crime as a specialist field in the police and prosecution service. “You have to specialise,” Forssblad says. “If you divide your time between different sorts of cases you will not get the necessary experience or enough knowledge.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on EUPOL COPPS’ ability to deliver training and advice to its partners, and the field of environmental crime is no different. Forssblad is optimistic about the future however, “The PCP has made a good start. You are seeing police officers become more specialised, and it’s easier to educate a smaller, specific group. It’s a big step forward”.