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Criminals stole hundreds of rare cacti from Chile. Now an Italian NGO is suing the suspects

Andrea Cattabriga, president of ABC, examines his homegrown rare cacti at his greenhouse in San Lazzaro di Savena, Italy, 2021.
Andrea Cattabriga, president of ABC, examines his homegrown rare cacti at his greenhouse in San Lazzaro di Savena, Italy, 2021. Copyright AP Photo/Trisha Thomas
Copyright AP Photo/Trisha Thomas
By Isabella Kaminski
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An Italian conservation organisation is suing two people at the centre of a cacti smuggling lawsuit for damaging its work to support biodiversity.

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Two men are currently facing a criminal trial in Italy for allegedly poaching and smuggling some of the world’s most threatened cacti from Chile’s Atacama Desert into Europe.

The public prosecutor of Ancona accuses Andrea Piombetti and Mattia Cresentini of importing and exporting endangered cacti without the required permits. 

Piombetti, in particular, is alleged to have uprooted more than 900 cacti himself from their natural habitat during repeated trips to Chile.

This is illegal under Italian laws that apply the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which aims to ensure that no wild species “becomes or remains subject to unsustainable exploitation”. It lists rare succulents among the plants under its protection.

Rare cacti species in high demand on the black market

The lawsuit follows a successful investigation in 2021 dubbed Operation Atacama, in which law enforcement agencies discovered cacti in the Eriosyce and Copiapoa genera at the home of a suspected smuggler in Ancona. These rare species are in high demand on the black market.

The smugglers allegedly posted the cacti from Chile to contacts in Greece and Romania, who redirected the shipments to Italy. They intended to sell these plants to a network of buyers across Europe and Asia.

Italian Carabinieri (military police force) wrap up confiscated cacti to be sent back to Chile, in Milan, April 2021.
Italian Carabinieri (military police force) wrap up confiscated cacti to be sent back to Chile, in Milan, April 2021.Carabinieri via AP

Returning the plants to their native home was a thorny task, involving authorities in Chile and Italy, as well as the EU and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

They had help from Italian conservation organisation Associazione per la Biodiversità e la sua Conservazione (ABC), whose president Andrea Cattabriga is a cactus expert. 

“The police sent me the pictures and I recognised their importance,” he says. “I found the opportunity to move all the plants from the house…to the Botanical Garden in Milan.” 

He then organised logistics and packaging to have the cacti sent safely back to Chile.

Illegal cacti trade harms both species and ecosystems

Cattabriga says the illegal cacti trade is hugely damaging both for particular species and the wider ecosystem. 

“The collection of a few specimens can really affect the species that could face extinction. But each living form in the desert is important because it is a very selective environment where biodiversity is very complex.”

ABC has now been allowed to enter a civil claim in the criminal case. 

It argues that poaching and smuggling damaged its work at the sharp end of cacti conservation, making it harder to protect species in the wild and to promote sustainable legal production in nurseries. This is known in legal terms as ‘moral harm’.

Cattabriga, an expert on rare cacti, was called by the Carabinieri in February 2020 as a consultant to examine thousands of cacti stolen from from the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Cattabriga, an expert on rare cacti, was called by the Carabinieri in February 2020 as a consultant to examine thousands of cacti stolen from from the Atacama Desert in Chile.Trisha Thomas/AP

The idea of pursuing a claim was instigated by NGO Conservation Litigation, which has been providing legal and scientific support.

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According to Maribel Rodriguez Valero, co-founder and executive director of Conservation Litigation, moral harm claims are common in lawsuits over large-scale pollution or oil spills, but are now “slowly being tested” in wildlife trade crimes. 

The first such lawsuit in Europe, as far as Valero is aware, was in 2015 when a Belgian court accepted that a bird protection organisation’s mission was harmed by illegal hunting. 

The court initially awarded merely a symbolic euro in compensation, but on appeal this was raised to €15,000. 

In the second case, poachers of endangered fish in Calanques national park in France, as well as restaurants and fishmongers who bought the fish, had to pay park authorities a total of €35,000 for harm to its mission, brand and reputation.

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The next hearing in the cacti lawsuit was due to be in June, but has been postponed until October. If the two men are found guilty by a judge of criminal charges, then there will be a discussion about whether and how much compensation is owed. 

ABC says it will use any money it receives to support cacti conservation.

Growing trend of biodiversity litigation

Conservation Litigation wants to set a strong precedent that people who harm an ecosystem can be held responsible for restoring it. 

It is part of a growing trend of biodiversity litigation around the world, where people are seeking to hold public and private bodies legally accountable for biodiversity loss.

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“This isn’t about making money,” says Dr Jacob Phelps, Conservation Litigation’s other co-executive director and principal investigator at Lancaster University’s conservation governance lab. 

“It’s about taking actions to recover. In some cases, we can envision that the offender might actually be involved, but rarely is that the most appropriate thing. It’s more likely that the restoration actions should be undertaken by the responsible government authority or an NGO like ABC that has technical competence.”

Piombetti and Crescentini could not be contacted for comment.

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