HomeNewsGameChangers 2021: How Organized Crime Devoured the Amazon Rainforest
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GameChangers 2021: How Organized Crime Devoured the Amazon Rainforest

BRAZIL / 28 DEC 2021 BY KATIE JONES, MARIA FERNANDA RAMÍREZ AND JUAN DIEGO CÁRDENAS EN

There was record destruction of the Amazon in 2020, as the rainforest lost an area around the size of Belize, and the situation looks to be even bleaker in 2021. Deforestation reached record levels in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. Colombia may break the trend, having reported moderate improvements in 2021.

In July came perhaps the worst news so far. A study by Nature showed tracts of Brazil’s Amazon were now no longer a carbon sink, emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorbed. The Amazon as a bulwark against rising global temperatures had finally cracked.

In November, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow issued dire warnings about deforestation but with few assurances it would make a difference.

Deforestation is more intertwined with criminal activities than ever. Those involved in gold mining, cattle ranching, drug trafficking and illegal logging are working hand-in-hand, either with each other or with public and private interests to destroy the lungs of the planet.

SEE ALSO: 4 Reasons Why Ruin of Brazil’s Amazon Keeps Getting Worse

Organized Crime in Deforestation

The battle against deforestation is complex. Agriculture and cattle ranching, for example, are legal industries, critical to the economies and encouraged by the governments of Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, among others.

But these activities are all too often associated with flagrantly illegal acts. Cattle ranching, for instance, is now the main motor of illegal land grabs in the Amazon, according to a major report on the Amazon by Amnesty International. It is carried out with a well-established model: Fires are set illegally, clearing huge areas of rainforest cover and opening up pastures.

The aggressive spread of cattle ranching has also claimed the lives and threatened the livelihoods of those who stand in the way, from Indigenous communities to small farmers and public officials, the Amnesty International report stated.

All of this is done with tacit and sometimes overt government approval, said Eduardo Franco Berton, a journalist who has followed environmental crime in Bolivia.

 “Over the last 15 years, successive governments have promoted settlement in protected areas in the Amazon for agriculture and livestock,” he told InSight Crime.

Simultaneously, criminal organizations have also accelerated their activities. In 2021, criminal groups across the Amazon expanded their seizures of gold, coltan and protected timber. The expansion of these criminal portfolios has gone hand in hand with the drug trade. Land cleared to build runways for drug planes has provided timber to be sold. Clandestine roads built through the forest can be used to move drugs, minerals, timber and contraband.  

Efforts made to fight this are paltry. Largely ineffective military operations have sought to combat illegal mining and other crimes driving forest loss in Peru, Brazil and Colombia.

And while environmental defenders have attempted to fend off soaring deforestation driven by organized crime, this has resulted in bloodshed across the region, as activists and Indigenous communities seeking to protect their lands have been threatened and killed in Colombia, Brazil and Peru.

Criminal groups also further expanded in areas that were already hot spots for deforestation. In Peru, mining camps wreaked havoc on the Boca Pariamanu Native Community land in the heart of the nation’s gold-rich Madre de Dios region.

Coca plantations are spreading outside Peru’s traditional coca-growing areas of the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro – VRAEM) deeper into Peru’s Amazon. And cocaine laboratories and illegal airstrips are being found increasingly in other parts of the rainforest.

In 2021, the sad trend of previous years has only accelerated. The battle against criminal deforestation in the Amazon is being lost.  

Old Threats Renewed

Despite close to record amounts of coca production in 2021, cattle replaced coca as the main driver of deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon. This shift had been underway since the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) in 2016. The FARC had acted as de facto custodians of the rainforest, an effective albeit illegal park service. Their departure led to a renewed invasion of the forest in southern Colombia, with locals paid to illegally fell colossal areas of rainforest for cattle ranching.

Official data published in July showed deforestation in Colombia’s Amazonian departments of Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo had soared in 2020. This became even more apparent in 2021. In the first three months of 2021, these departments still witnessed the highest concentrations of deforestation.

Increasingly scarce fine woods were also ransacked to feed international markets. For example, timber mafias based along Ecuador’s borders have been cashing in on a balsa wood boom, especially from the wind power industry, since balsa wood is used to make wind turbine blades in China and the United States. The quantity of illegal balsa wood found in Ecuador jumped by 180 percent in 2020. Seizures have continued apace this year. 

Ana Cristina Basantes, a journalist who has followed environmental crime in Ecuador closely, told InSight Crime that illegal balsa logging has contributed to increased deforestation on territories owned by the Indigenous Achuar people, which straddle the nation’s border with Peru.

Milagros Aguirre Andrade, a journalist who wrote a book on Ecuador’s timber trade, added that beyond deforestation, the arrival of balsa loggers to these indigenous communities has also brought acts of violence. And this is only set to worsen, according to Aguirre. “During the pandemic, the trade has sparked increased violence along the Ecuador-Peru border,” she told InSight Crime.

There, women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence, and clashes have occurred when loggers are not paid the agreed amount. The illegal timber trade has also driven arms and munitions into indigenous communities.

New tactics were also used to facilitate old crimes that have long driven deforestation.

Smaller patches of forest were cleared to confuse authorities. In Colombia’s central Meta department, for example, former FARC soldiers -- working under the direction of a former FARC commander, Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte" -- ordered local people to clear land for coca crops one hectare at a time to avoid detection.

New technologies are also accelerating the trend. In Brazil, plots of Amazon rainforest were sold illegally on Facebook, prompting the social media giant to undertake a crackdown on the illegal sales of land via this platform.

Corrupt Cooperation

Petty and systemic corruption continued to grease the wheels of environmental crimes and deforestation across the Amazon.

From Brazil to Bolivia, government officials were enmeshed in illegal activities.

In May, the Brazilian government faced accusations that it not only turned a blind eye to illegal deforestation in the Amazon but actively participated in its pillage. The nation’s environment minister was investigated and resigned, and the head of its environmental protection agency was suspended. Both men allegedly helped timber companies export more wood logged from the Amazon than legally permitted.

In June, it was reported Brazil's Rural Environmental Register (Cadastro Ambiental Rural - CAR) was being used to designate millions of hectares of Amazon forest as rural lands, in a process that critics say fuels state-sanctioned land grabs and deforestation by criminal actors.

Elsewhere, Bolivia’s minister for rural development and land was arrested with another senior official for allegedly accepting a cash bribe to allow illegal land grabs in the Amazon for agricultural use.

Similar cases happen in Peru. Corrupt officials at the Regional Agricultural Directorates (Direcciones Regionales Agrarias - DRA) orchestrate the illegal issuance of land ownership titles that are then sold to palm oil companies, according to Magaly Ávila, the director of the forest governance program for Proética, the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International. Under these land trafficking schemes, thousands of hectares of forest have been deforested.

Colombia’s Autonomous Regional Corporations for Sustainable Development (CARs), the regional government bodies designed to regulate the environment, continued to face corruption charges. Several sources who spoke to InSight Crime agreed that CAR officials had issued transit permits with false information to benefit those involved in the illegal timber trade. Fresh attempts were made to clean up the CARs in April 2021, but the results of this are yet to be seen and illegal logging continues to thrive.

Meanwhile, powerful networks of businessmen and politicians, who rely on corruption to title their stolen lands, continued to orchestrate land grabbing for agro-business and cattle ranching, a principal driver of deforestation for the nation.

In Guyana, allegations of corruption within the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), which monitors mining activities, are also widespread. Mining industry observers in the country, who agreed to speak to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, told InSight Crime that GGMC inspectors are routinely paid off to overlook illegal mining practices. The GGMC allegedly deliberately use inaccurate maps of Indigenous territories to issue permits within their lands, even though this is prohibited under the Mining Law.

“The overall intention is to provide a cover for corrupt officials,” one environmental crime expert in Guyana told InSight Crime.

Security forces were also involved. In Ecuador, police and soldiers received bribes from timber traffickers to ensure the smooth transfer of illegal wood out of Ecuador, Aguirre Andrade told InSight Crime.

In Venezuela, a former army lieutenant allegedly recruited Venezuelan soldiers to provide firepower for the Tren de Guayana gang's bid to take over illegal gold mining operations. The alliance was part of a complex web of collaboration between the military and criminal gangs which has fuelled mining and, consequently, rampant deforestation.

SEE ALSO: Why South America's Armies Are Losing the War for the Amazon

Amazon Road Trip

Criminal groups have also taken advantage of the increasing number of roads and other infrastructure cutting through the Amazon. The effects of this became more apparent in 2021.

Illegal and irregular roads continue to open the gates of Colombia’s Amazon to criminal groups. In 2021, illegal road construction around Chiribiquete National Park, in the southern department of Caquetá, attracted both farmers and criminal entrepreneurs. The Llanos del Yarí-Yaguara II Indigenous Reserve, located between the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán (Caquetá), La Macarena (Meta) and Calamar (Guaviare) also saw further encroachment.

This trend looks set to continue. In July 2021, it was reported that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was planning to construct a new railway that would cut through the Amazon. This infrastructure would not only lead to mass deforestation, but could also be coopted, as other transport infrastructure has been, to move cocaine and illegal timber.

To be sure, these roads are constructed by local officials or by criminal networks — lacking the proper permits — and are direct drivers of deforestation in the region. They have also paved the way for other activities like coca cultivation, illegal logging and illegal mining. What’s more, roads have increased the value of surrounding land, making land grabbing more likely.

A Losing Battle

As in previous years, armies in Brazil, Colombia and Peru failed again to win a battle in the war against deforestation.

Colombia recorded soaring deforestation despite its deployment of troops as part of Operation Artemisa, a militarized attempt to combat forest loss and win back the country’s national parks from criminal groups. Discontent among military ranks who believed police should not be charged with this task hampered efforts.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro's Operation Green Brazil came to an ineffectual end after its second phase. A lack of specialized training for soldiers seems to have severely hampered its success.

As militaries remained at the forefront of a region-wide fight against deforestation, environmental agencies faced increased hurdles.

Brazil’s environmental agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis — IBAMA) saw its funding and personnel slashed. And the nation’s mining regulator (Agência Nacional de Mineração — ANM) was no match for its gold rush, as 250 inspectors monitored some 35,000 mining sites.

Multilateral cooperation in the Amazon also remained low, hampering efforts to fight organized crime’s regionwide encroachment.

On April 22, the Escazú Agreement came into force. This treaty has set out to support environmental defenders fighting deforestation across Latin America and the Caribbean. But several important governments remain on the sidelines. Suriname and Venezuela are not signatories, while Colombia has yet to ratify the agreement.

In November, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, 110 countries pledged their commitment to rein in global deforestation by 2030. However, one note marred the moment. Bolivia and Venezuela, two of the worst culprits when it comes to Amazon deforestation, abstained.

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