The presence of corrupt actors who have a vested interest in allowing environmental crime to happen coupled with an overall lack of capacity, resources and political will to combat related activities, is an explosive mix that is destroying Colombia’s Amazon.
While there are efforts to stiffen resilience to environmental crime in the region, including new legislative frameworks, some demonstrations of political will and leadership on the government’s part, and international cooperation, there is still a long way to go.
Colombia has a number of laws in place to combat environmental crime in its Penal Code, but legal gaps exist. Environmental regulations have traditionally been focused upon the issuance of permits and licenses for the management and use of natural resources. However, these have lacked any real bite when it comes to rooting out environmental crime.
Low resistance in this sense has presented a window of opportunity for criminal actors who have sought to loot Colombia’s Amazon.
Articles 328-339 of the Colombian Penal Code in Law 599 of 2000 lay out the regulations for dealing with environmental crimes in the nation. This law covers the illicit use of natural resources, environmental damage, illegal fishing, mineral exploitation, and other areas.
However, the framework is general. Existing norms are often mentioned without a detailed explanation of what they entail, leaving room for environmental crime to thrive in Colombia’s Amazon with scarce consequences for perpetrators. Penalties for breaking these laws range from two to ten years in prison to having to pay a small fine. Despite this, it clearly is not an effective deterrent as environmental crime grows across the region.
More recently a new bill has been put forward to update legislation on environmental crimes, which will show Colombia is taking the protection of its Amazon and other biodiverse regions more seriously if approved. Congress have been debating this law - which covers environmental crimes of all stripes - during 2021. The bill intends to establish wildlife trafficking as an autonomous crime, to legislate new criminal offences, and strengthen penalties handed down to offenders damaging the environment.
Likewise, the introduction of the National Policy for the Control of Deforestation and the Sustainable Management of Forests issued by the National Council for Economic and Social Policy (Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social - CONPES) in document 4021 of 2019 was a significant step forward. The policy aims to reduce deforestation in Colombia by incorporating strategies of sustainable forestry use and promoting preventive and territorial control strategies to minimize illegal activities affecting areas of primary forest.
However, the strategy falls short in some areas. The action points presented in CONPES 4021 do not correspond directly to identified causes of deforestation or respond to regional contexts. The policy also fails to recognize the different types of actors involved in Colombia’s motors of deforestation which are wide-ranging.
On top of this, traditional Colombian administrative laws have scarcely recognized the scope of CONPES documents, which are effectively non-binding mechanisms. This may limit the influence CONPES 4021 has on curbing environmental crime affecting Colombia’s Amazon.
Alongside generalized legislation designed to combat environmental crime in Colombia, some regulations have taken important steps to combat specific drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss in the nation, like wildlife trafficking and illegal mining.
Through Law 17 of January 22, 1981 Colombia approved the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), signed in Washington in 1973. This was the first normative tool strictly dedicated to combatting the trafficking of wildlife and flora and has been decisive in identifying and protecting threatened species.
As for illegal mining, in 2015 Colombia’s National Mining Agency (Agencia Nacional de Minería – ANM) in charge of managing state-owned mineral resources, introduced a new policy which meant all miners and companies wanting to legally trade minerals would have to register themselves with the body’s Mineral Sales Registry (Registro Único de Comercializadores de Minerales - RUCOM). Since its establishment, RUCOM has strengthened controls surrounding the legal exploitation of minerals.
Law 1658 of 2013 prohibits the use of mercury in any extractive activity. In 2023, a full ban on the industrial use (production and sale) of mercury will come into effect. The projected ban has been established in line with the international Minamata Convention (ratified by Colombia in 2019) which has sought to stamp out the chemical’s use globally. This will make mercury – which is commonly used by small-scale artisanal miners- more difficult to get hold of, potentially pushing the trade into illegal hands.
More specific to illegal logging, the creation of the online transit permit (Salvoconducto Único Nacional en Línea - SUNL) through Resolution 1909 of 2017, has allowed officials to more easily track timber during its transit.
However, the implementation of this mechanism continues to face its challenges. In regions with unstable or patchy access to the internet, such as the Amazon, transit permits are still physically printed by Corpoamazonia. This has allowed transporters to photocopy permits and use them more than once. As such, timber continues to be laundered through the use of legal documentation.
Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has a specialized unit dedicated to organized crime, but the office in charge of environmental crime is currently the Directorate of Human Rights. “This has meant that environmental crimes do not receive sufficient attention,” according to forestry expert César Rey.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s Financial Information and Analysis Unit (Unidad de Información y Análisis Financiero – UIAF) which is designed to combat money laundering, has not delved into environmental crime. While crimes like illegal mining, wildlife trafficking and illegal logging are intrinsically linked to money laundering, this unit has done very little to focus its efforts on such activities to date, with the exception of mining.
As specialized units have largely failed to take on environmental crime in Colombia, sweeping interventions have been the approach of choice.
Interceptions covering multiple departments have been conducted, spurred on by Operation Artemisa, a militarized campaign launched by President Iván Duque Márquez in April 2019 to win back Colombia’s forests and combat deforestation.
Interventions carried out under Operation Artemisa have attempted to root out environmental crime in Colombia’s Amazon by making arrests. For example, a string of interventions were carried out across two days in February 2021. As a result, 40 people were captured and charged for their involvement in illegal mining and other activities driving deforestation in Guaviare and Caquetá, among other departments.
However, doubts have been raised concerning how far the armed forces involved in Operation Artemisa support their new function. Discontent has been apparent among some soldiers who do not see protecting natural resources and combatting deforestation as a central part of the military’s duties.
On another note, it is important to highlight that when criminal justice has been applied in this way in Colombia’s Amazon, those with the least influence in fueling any given environmental crime have typically been captured, particularly when the armed forces are under pressure to show “immediate results.” Meanwhile, those financing activities driving deforestation largely remain free and the criminal networks intact.
Militarized strategies that additionally incorporate economic alternatives for local people – who may engage in illegal logging, mining and coca cultivation due to economic desperation - are those most likely to combat environmental crime in any sustainable way. Such strategies work by showing communities opportunities to break away from these activities, rather than arbitrarily punishing them. Militarized approaches alone appear to have a scarce impact on combatting deforestation.
Political Will and Leadership
Follow-through on official proposals to boost the importance of combatting environmental crime as a national priority has been lackluster in Colombia.
For example, Colombia’s National Security Policy (Política de Defensa y Seguridad - PDS) laid out an attempt to reframe the notion of what ”crime” constitutes in Colombia to be more heavily oriented around the environmental impact of criminal activities.
The document implied crimes that threatened the environment like drug trafficking should be more heavily focused upon. While marking a radical break in official thinking, this document has been scarcely acted upon, aside from Operation Artemisa.
To tackle illegal mining, the Duque government is currently considering centralizing the gold market and wants Congress to increase penalties surrounding environmental crimes. In line with such efforts, a new military unit was created in February 2021 to target illicit mining operations. The impact of such actions for Colombia’s Amazon region remains to be seen.
Colombia has actively cooperated with other countries, international organizations and international crime-fighting agencies, like Interpol, to combat environmental crimes devastating its Amazon region and other parts of the nation.
The governments of Peru and Colombia have been cooperating for years to monitor and prevent illegal mining and deforestation along the Amazonian border they share.
In August 2019, President Duque met with former Peruvian president, Martín Vizcarra, where they signed a joint presidential declaration. In the declaration, both parties acknowledged the need to join forces to protect the Amazon Basin, paving the way for greater coordination in combatting environmental crime across the region.
Colombia is also a signatory of the Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty that seeks to deepen the link between environmental protections and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. The agreement aims to reduce conflicts that lead to the murders of environmental defenders across the region.
Although Colombia signed the agreement, it still needs to be ratified by the nation’s Congress. If the agreement is not ratified in Colombia, the country will have no commitment to follow its guidelines, even when it comes into force.
Alongside its work with other nations in the region, Colombia has a history of collaborating with international organizations to combat environmental crime in its Amazon region and beyond.
Even prior to becoming a recognized member of the OECD, Colombia worked with the organization to strengthen responsible mineral supply chains through due diligence.
In 2018, Colombia’s government signed an agreement to take stronger action to implement OECD Due Diligence Guidance in the country’s gold supply chains. The nation agreed to "include better background checks in its mining registry, set up a mine monitoring mechanism to assess risks at artisanal mining sites, and support capacity building for industry and the government."
While this was a promising step , illicit gold has continued to pour out of the nation as the precious metal’s price has soared, according to a report on the trade published by Global Financial Integrity in early 2021.
Specialized agencies in Colombia have also joined forces with international organizations to combat illegal mining.
Most recently, it was reported Colombia’s National Mining Agency would team up with the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to provide easier access to loans for small-scale miners who want to improve their processes. This collaborative effort will set out to minimize the impact of small-scale mining in Colombia, but its results are yet to be seen.
Updated European Union regulations and international recognition of environmental crime in the region may change the game. Greater green standards and compliance have been pushed for, with businesses increasingly onboard. The European Commission has also committed to publish a legislative proposal in June 2021, which will seek to minimize risks of deforestation and forest degradation associated with products placed on the European Union market. The impact such action will have on curbing deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon particularly is yet to be seen.
Other international bodies have publicly noted the scale of the problem. In late 2020, Cláudio Maretti, regional vice-chair for South America of the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), warned that deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon was worse than that in Brazil. While environmental crime facing the region has been noted at an international level, little substantial action has been subsequently taken to curb the problem to date.
Despite efforts made with international organizations and other countries to combat environmental crime, Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental defender, according to the most recent data available from Global Witness. 64 environmental defenders were killed in Colombia in 2019, making up around a third of total killings recorded globally.
Community leaders fight to stave off criminal networks engaged in illegally mining, logging and growing coca both on and around their territories. Criminal actors typically respond to this with violence and threats, murdering those who stand in their way in many cases.
Such defenders are given very little state support and are essentially left alone in efforts to protect the Amazon region and other hot spots of biodiversity from deforestation, degradation and contamination.
Some initiatives attempting to engage with civil society in the region’s fight against environmental crime have shown great promise.
Minambiente has collaborated with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and European Union to promote sustainable forestry practices by local communities since 2018, through a project called "Forestaría Comunitaria," or “Community Forestry.” This has been implemented in Putumayo and other departments.
Social initiatives of this kind aim to provide local people with alternatives to working in illicit economies that have a negative impact on the environment. They also monitor areas that may be encroached upon by criminal actors.
Similarly, formalization processes have brought members of local communities – who might otherwise get involved in illegal mining or illicit crop cultivation - into regulated national economic, social, and political activity. To date, formalization has been a particularly strong way to combat deforestation in Colombia, but it is also an area where greater efforts can be made.
The Colombian government has long tried to bring informal miners into the formal economy to promote a more sustainable approach to mineral extraction, including in the Amazon region. However, in some cases, small-scale miners have missed registration deadlines, complicating the government’s efforts to formalize the sector.
Such programs limit scope for small-scale actors to act irregularly and effectively give them a set of rules and guidelines they must follow in the formal sector to carry out their work. When followed, these regulations curb environmental damage from artisanal mining and crop cultivation.
Looking ahead, members of Indigenous communities in Colombia’s Amazon have advocated for greater formalization efforts to curb environmental crime and deforestation in the region. A member of the Yaguara II Reserve suggested “establishing a firm agricultural frontier, formalizing titles for farmers in the region, providing education and training to change destructive practices, offering health and education guarantees, and working with local associations to reforest and recruit them for environmental control” could be used to combat deforestation in the region.