Addressing the complex roots of environmental crime

  • November 13, 2023
Addressing the complex roots of environmental crime

Simone Haysom talks about her career and her latest role leading a global project on environmental crime

Action on environmental damage is not a ‘nice to have’. It is critical.

Simone Haysom

Simone Haysom [2009] says her MPhil at the University of Cambridge helped to change her life course. While she had been interested in climate change and human geography as an undergraduate, doing the MPhil in Environment, Society and Development at an international university as part of the Gates Cambridge cohort broadened her perspective and set her on the path to her current work addressing environmental crime.

Simone has just returned from maternity leave to lead a project on environmental crime at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. She says supporting better law enforcement is only one element of her work. “Developmental responses can be more powerful in undermining criminal economies,” she says. “Global policy is currently critical for setting the direction of travel, but locally-led responses are often the most responsive and adaptable.”

She adds that the reality of what is happening on the ground is complex and it is hard to address it as a standalone issue. However, the grant her team has to carry out their work is focused on wildlife and timber crime and is able to address several aspects of the problem at once. She says that what works depends on the specific regional and country context and is not neatly correlated to a country’s resources and governance. “There is no general picture,” says Simone. “In some places there are few resources but commitment from governments to tackle the problem, while in others there is strong governance but little appetite to change things.” 

An early interest in the environment

Simone is based in Geneva, but was born and grew up in South Africa. She did a double major in English Literature and History with an honours in Human Geography at the University of Cape Town.  At university she was very concerned about climate change and started a reading group with friends to understand the science behind climate change and its potential solutions.

She chose human geography because “growing up in South Africa I was interested in how our cities work for everyone, because they manifestly do not: Cape Town is a city of stark inequality”. And, she says, “the only place in the university to look at the environment and human development was the geography department”. She was taught by some impressive academics who were doing innovative work, but she was keen on graduation to see the world and experience other cultures. So she applied to Cambridge to do her master’s, not imagining she would get a scholarship.


Simone says Cambridge was a wonderful experience. While at the University she attended the COP10 conference in Copenhagen. She wrote her thesis on the clash of ideologies she saw at the side events there. After graduating, she applied for climate change-related jobs. It was just after the financial crash and jobs were hard to come by so she took up an internship with the New Economics Foundation and then with an environmental project in South London, the BioRegional Development Group, which was focused on zero carbon development. There she designed and drafted a grant proposal for funds to undertake a multi-dimensional urban renewal project in a low-income area of Durban, South Africa. 

After that she interned at the Overseas Development Institute [ODI], working her way up to research officer and ultimately leading work on urbanisation and conflict displacement. One project she worked on was the ‘Sanctuary in the City: urban vulnerability and displacement’ project. That role drew on her previous interest in cities and their development, but with a wider embrace of issues relating to migration and conflict. 

Returning to South Africa

Simone stayed in London for four years until 2013 when she took a risk and resigned from her job to return to South Africa to write a book and to work as a consultant. She says she was very nervous at first as she had never done consulting before. Initially, she had intended to write a book linked to the humanitarian work she had been doing at the ODI on peacekeeping forces in South Africa, but she lacked access to the people she wanted to speak to so she looked for another subject.  “I had a sense of what the subject should achieve – a gripping story to illuminate a bigger tapestry of issues in the model of the South African writer Jonny Steinberg,” she says. 

She decided to write about the trial of Cape Flats activist Angy Peter who was accused of murdering a young troublemaker, Rowan du Preez, in an act of vigilantism. The 2018 book, The Last Words of Rowan du Preez: Murder and Conspiracy on the Cape Flats, took Simone four years to research and write and shone a light on crime and the state of policing in the townships of South Africa.  

From night life crime to environmental crime

While doing her research, Simone was introduced to the head of criminology at the University of Cape town who was recruiting researchers for a project on men who had been bouncers in the 1990s and were suspected of forming South Africa’s first democratic-era mafia. She started with a few journalist contacts and found herself talking to the bouncers. Most didn’t consider themselves to have been part of a mafia; they could portray their activities as a legitimate job, and several were comfortable talking to her. She worked with an academic to pull together the details of the bouncers’ lives, to relate those to the processes involved in societies in transition and to identify the evolution of drug markets as South Africa’s society opened up. “It provided an insight into my country at a point in its democratic evolution, when – unintended and largely unnoticed – a darker side to the transition was developing, in the form of organised crime,” says Simone.

She continued to work on writing and editing projects until 2017 when her husband took up an MBA at Oxford and the couple moved to the UK. While she was there Simone began working for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, an NGO that works on global responses to organised crime. She has been there for seven years and is currently working from the HQ in Geneva. 

She started working on drug trafficking and corruption, but soon moved onto crime involving wildlife and, more recently, to a new role in the broad scope of environmental crime. While it is not directly about climate change, Simone says climate change is now an underlying and cross-cutting theme in the work she has done in the last few years, decreasing the resilience of human societies and natural systems. Her focus is on the illegal aspects of environmental damage, although she admits that many types of environmental damage are legal.

From her perspective on working on grassroots issues, Simone says she feels many politicians are failing to grasp the seriousness of the environmental damage threat across the board, from climate change destruction to organised waste crime [illegal waste disposal].  She says: “A lot of it comes down to the need for a paradigm shift. Action on environmental damage is not a ‘nice to have’. It is critical.”

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