HomeInvestigationsMoney Grows on Trees: Environmental Crime in Peru's Amazon
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Money Grows on Trees: Environmental Crime in Peru's Amazon

COCA / 2 JUN 2022 BY MARÍA FERNANDA RAMÍREZ EN

In 2010, Peru’s then-Minister of the Environment, Antonio Brack, said Peru aimed to halt deforestation in the Amazon by 2021. Today the country could not be further from reaching this goal. Peru is experiencing the highest levels of deforestation in the nation’s history, with a total of 203,272 hectares of forest lost in 2020, 37 percent more than in 2019. President Pedro Castillo has recognized the importance of mitigating environmental crime. In his first speech after being inaugurated in 2021, he said his administration will promote the protection of the Amazon and work to curb deforestation.

However, there is still no sign of a coherent policy capable of tackling environmental crime and the corruption that facilitates it, let alone any action. Part of this is due to the political chaos Peru has had in recent years. Waves of corruption scandals have tainted the highest echelons of government. In 2020, the country had three presidents in just one week. This political instability has sidelined efforts to counter the environmental crimes devastating the Peruvian Amazon, pushing it far down the haphazard list of government priorities. The pandemic, meanwhile, has made efforts to protect the Amazon even more difficult.

This report is the product of one year of open-source and field investigation – including desk-top research, telephone and face-to-face interviews with environmental experts, government officials, law enforcement, academics and others – in Peru. The information gathered has been used to develop a picture of how environmental crime works, including which actors are involved, and its overlap with legal economies and other criminal activities. The report also reviews what the Peruvian government is doing to curb deforestation and its drivers, and it concludes with some opportunities for intervention.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

Criminal structures in recent years have seized on environmental crime as a business opportunity, with high earning potential and low risk. Profits generated by environmental crime complement earnings from other criminal economies, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and arms trafficking. Peru, which is among the ten most biodiverse countries in the world, provides ample opportunities for a range of environmental crimes. Its extensive rainforest is home to about 10 percent of Earth's flora species and thousands of animals, including exotic birds and jaguars. Additionally, the Peruvian Amazon is full of gold deposits.

Products derived from illegal mining, timber trafficking and wildlife trafficking in Peru have flooded both national and international markets. Most environmental crime activities are carried out across the departments of Loreto, Amazonas and San Martín in the north of the country; Ucayali in the center; and Madre de Dios in the southeast bordering Brazil, as well as in another ten departments in the Amazon region. Some of these activities have grown due to the spread of other criminal activities, most notably coca production. But much of the destruction of the Peruvian Amazon can be traced to how successive governments have prioritized large agricultural development over the protection of the environment. Widespread, systematic corruption fuels both the legal and illegal businesses that are destroying the region’s biosphere. 

SEE ALSO: Timber Mafias - Preying on Latin America's Forests

The principal actors behind environmental crime in the Peruvian Amazon can be broken down into three categories. At the top of the ladder are legal actors, such as corrupt state authorities or legally registered companies, that facilitate environmental crimes. Below them are various types of small and large entrepreneurial criminal networks that help finance and orchestrate these crimes. At the bottom rung sits a labor force that performs low-level tasks, such as cutting down trees, sifting for gold or poaching animals. All of these actors share the blame, but some should be higher priority targets for the government than others, particularly those at the top who destroy large swaths of the Amazon.

President Castillo faces a daunting task: mitigating environmental crime and curbing record levels of deforestation – all within the context of the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and the political chaos Peru has experienced in recent years. In the short- and medium-term, the government must target the corruption greasing the wheels of environmental crimes in the Peruvian Amazon. In the long term, it has to make the hard choice of prioritizing the defense of the Amazon with adequate regulatory measures and careful consideration of how to protect the environment while promoting economic development.

*InSight Crime has partnered with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to trace the environmental crimes and criminal actors driving deforestation in Peru's Amazon. See the entire six-part series here.

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