Deep in the heart of the Amazon basin lie two tri-border regions, where environmental crimes and their perpetrators recognize no national boundaries. In these vast jungle areas, isolated stretches of critical primary forests are being razed to mine gold, grow coca, and harvest timber.
At Brazil’s northern border with Colombia and Venezuela, which extends for nearly 4,000 kilometers and is largely accessible only by boat and light aircraft, prospectors are in a mad scramble to unearth gold.
Tens of thousands of them have invaded the territory of the Indigenous Yanomami people, who inhabit large swath of land across parts of Brazil and Venezuela. The miners have scarred the earth and left mud pits across the Yanomami reserve.
In Venezuela’s Yapacana National Park, slightly north of this tri-border zone, illegal gold mining has grown with “remarkable” speed and intensity, according to SOS Orinoco, a watchdog group. Illegal prospectors have even razed forest atop Cerro Yapacana, a sheer-walled mountain that soars over the park.
“In the region, everything depends on gold,” a mining expert in the Venezuelan Amazon told InSight Crime, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.“ The activity on Cerro Yapacana never stops. They are extracting gold all the time.”
At the other tri-border, where Brazil, Colombia, and Peru meet, criminal actors and illicit economies flow and merge like the region’s many rivers.
In a northeastern corner of Peru, Amazon forest is being felled to grow coca. From jungle processing sites there, cocaine is smuggled to Colombia and then to Brazil, where the drugs can be dispatched throughout the region’s largest country to feed local consumption, and then onto Europe and beyond.
Three rivers -- the Caquetá (known in Brazil as the Japurá), the Putumayo, and the Amazon -- and their many tributaries serve as arteries for this cross-border trafficking. The shared waterways are also highways for timber cut by illegal loggers, where gold dredges are operated by illegal miners.
The nexus of drug and environmental crime in these two Amazon’s tri-border regions has brought together a volatile mix of criminal actors to a wilderness where the presence of law enforcement and the state are minimal. What little order that exists is often imposed at gunpoint by criminal groups.
In Colombia’s large and mostly unpatrolled Amazonas department, whole Indigenous communities have been held hostage.
“I have never seen such fear of violence due to such a presence of armed illegal groups,” said a humanitarian official who works with Indigenous communities in Amazonas and asked to not be identified for safety reasons.
Since 2019 Indigenous communities are not only caught in the crosshairs of criminal violence, but increasingly depend on criminal enterprises for their livelihoods. Processing coca, harvesting illegal timber, and serving as labor on gold-dredging rafts are some of the few employment opportunities in these remote regions. Some participants are youths with little say in the matter.
Indigenous communities are also being exposed to high levels of toxic mercury, used by the miners to separate gold. Traces of mercury are contaminating rivers and forests.
These same communities have historically been devoted guardians and front-line defenders of these forests and waterways, with a vested interest in protecting their biodiverse homelands. Listening to the needs of these communities, providing them funding, alternative livelihood opportunities, and finding ways to bring them security are all necessary steps in tackling the array of crimes stoking deforestation in these two Amazon tri-border regions.
Wider policy options also are needed, including cooperation among regional representatives of all the tri-border countries, satellite, and aerial imaging to monitor forests, increased vigilance over reserves and parklands, and enforcement of the environmental protection laws and treaties that currently exist. Enormous political will is required.
Although the remoteness of both triple borders has shielded them, in part, from suffering the extensive deforestation that has affected other regions of the Amazon, the seeds of future destruction in these critical regions of the triple border are already being sown.