Emerging from almost six decades of civil conflict, the world’s number one cocaine producer has paid scant attention to environmental crime. Yet Colombia is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, boasting everything from tropical rainforests and deserts to open savannas and mountainous ecosystems. The country is the site of a wide range of environmental crimes, many of which go unreported.

Southeastern Colombia forms part of the Amazon basin, and its lush jungles have rarely been controlled by the central government but rather been the refuge and preserve of non-state armed groups (NSAGs). The country is home to some 60 million hectares of forest, meaning over half of its territory is covered in trees. Colombia has the third-largest forested area in South America, trailing only Brazil and Peru. It also boasts the fifth-largest primary forest area of the continent, much of which lies in the Amazonian Basin.

*InSight Crime has joined forces with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to map out environmental crime in the Amazon Basin. Further installments of the investigation will be published throughout September. Read all chapters here or download the full PDF.

While this troubled Andean nation battles a wide array of pandemic and insecurity-related challenges, the prevalence of environmental crime – and its relevance as a source of income to some of the most powerful criminal groups in the country – is apparent. The Colombian government is fully aware of the growing importance of environmental crime and has designated it a threat to national security. But this designation has yet to translate into a coherent and consistent policy to tackle the many facets of environmental crime.

For decades, one of the most powerful warring factions in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), acted as a de facto guardian to much of the country’s virgin jungle in the south of the country, which it used to hide from enemies during combat.

But since the FARC demobilization in 2016, deforestation has accelerated to record levels. In 2017, a record high of 219,973 hectares was deforested in Colombia, up 23 percent from the previous year. This marked a significant leap from the 120,933 hectares of forest cleared in 2013, when Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales – IDEAM), charged with managing technical and scientific data on the environment, began producing its annual deforestation monitoring report.

Today, the FARC elements that left the peace process, referred to as the ex-FARC Mafia by InSight Crime, are the most active participants in environmental crime in the Amazon region, both in Colombia and Venezuela.

SEE ALSO: Coverage on Environmental Crime

While environmental crime is not always driven by serious organized crime, sophisticated drug trafficking criminal networks and NSAGs are prevalent. Environmental crime is part of a wider criminal portfolio for these actors. And some of these, having defied a US-backed government for more than five decades, are extremely hard to fight.

Thus, the resilience and scale of environmental crimes are high, while the government’s range of options to fight such crimes has proven, so far, limited. Facing a barrage of criminal threats, environmental crime is far down the list of government and security force priorities, and the legal tools to tackle these illegal activities are often rudimentary and little used.

Deforestation has many different motors and has been cutting deeper and deeper into Colombia’s Amazon. Alongside logging, one of the main drivers is illegal mining, mainly that of gold, which is concentrated on alluvial deposits and follows many of Colombia’s waterways, spreading mercury and associated social and health-related challenges in its wake. Alluvial gold mining in the nation has been on the rise.

Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published in late 2020 revealed that while alluvial gold mining – both legal and illegal – affected 92,046 hectares in 2018, this figure rose to 98,028 in 2019. The UNODC added that two-thirds of all alluvial gold mining in Colombia is illegal. Some of this activity has affected the Amazonian departments of Amazonas, Guainía, Caquetá, Putumayo, Vaupés, and Guaviare.

The ever-present narcotics trade, mainly built around cocaine, together with poppy and marijuana plantations, has seen forest cut and drug crops sown in its place. In 2019, over 33,000 hectares of coca crops were cultivated across Colombia’s Amazon region. This marked a decline from 2018’s figure of around 43,287 hectares but showed illicit crop cultivation is still a principal driver of deforestation in the region.

Meanwhile, chemicals used to transform coca leaves into cocaine, such as gasoline, potassium permanganate and sulfuric acid, are poisoning land and water. Based on current production levels and degradation data from 2013, the projected total degradation of organic matter – carbon-based compounds found within natural and engineered, terrestrial and aquatic environments – today would equate to 269 tons.

The illegal trafficking of animals is also becoming industrial scale. According to its Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development over 50,000 registered animal species live in Colombia, making it the second-most biologically diverse country in the world. Much of this is concentrated in the Amazon region, found among the thick jungles of the departments of Amazonas, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, Vaupés and Guainía.

For analytical purposes, the study of the actors behind the three categories of environment crimes considered in this paper – deforestation, mining, and animal trafficking – will be divided into four layers: criminal networks and entrepreneurs, NSAGS, the labor force and legal actors.

SEE ALSO: Timber Mafias – Preying on Latin America’s Forests

Criminal networks and entrepreneurs sit at the top of the chain, financing and orchestrating environmental crimes from start to end. They possess the most influence and economic power in each activity and often act from the shadows as “invisibles.” Meanwhile, NSAGs work with criminal networks and entrepreneurs to oversee the operation of criminal economies driving deforestation in the region. They include guerrilla groups, and networks descended from paramilitary groups that are primarily funded by illicit activities.

Local people making up a “labor force” are paid little to provide manual labor for basic tasks like cutting or burning trees and wield the least amount of influence in a given supply chain.

Finally, facilitators/legal actors, who may be corrupt state authorities or legally registered enterprises, grease the wheels of environmental crime through irregular or illegal acts.

Almost all the different facets of environmental crime rely heavily on corruption, including that of security forces, local officials, environmental officials, and then border and customs agents.

Colombia is the nation where the intersection between environmental crime and world-class criminal structures is strongest. There are few quick fixes here, as criminal groups have defied the government for half a century. And in the Amazon region, these groups are more predatory, in environmental terms, than ever before. This challenge is heightened by how, in many cases, those orchestrating environmental crimes work from the shadows as “invisibles,” using corruption to their advantage.

In the long to medium term, efforts should be made to ensure local communities have incentives to ignore the temptations of getting involved in environmental crime. Anti-corruption efforts should be prioritized to combat networks dedicated to timber trafficking, land grabbing, illegal mining and wildlife trafficking.

Alongside this, periodic technical training for environmental police, prosecutors and judges should be provided to combat such activities.

Finally, greater cooperation with international agencies, other countries and the private sector should be sought to fight environmental crime in Colombia’s Amazon region.

*InSight Crime has joined forces with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to map out environmental crime in the Amazon Basin. Further chapters of the investigation will be published throughout September. Read all chapters here.

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Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...