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

BRAZIL / 4 MAY 2021 BY KATIE JONES EN

Decades of inaction and inefficiency in combating environmental crime in the Amazon have led Brazil, Colombia and Peru to take an increasingly drastic measure: deploying troops to the jungle to stop timber trafficking, illegal mining and other criminal acts.

Yet the Amazon continues to be plundered at an alarming rate, and the most recent military operations in these countries seemingly have not made a measurable difference.

Colombia, which announced in 2019 that it would use its military to curb deforestation, has seen vast tracts of forest cleared, despite the deployment of troops as part of Operation Artemisa. In Peru, soldiers sent to drive out illegal gold miners have proven ineffective in stopping destruction in its Madre de Dios region, with 10,000 hectares destroyed in 2019. And Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro's Operation Green Brazil – launched in August 2019 after fires in the Amazon drew worldwide news coverage – has come to an ineffectual end after its second installment.

The involvement of armies can even make things worse. In Colombia, conflicts between troops and illegal armed groups hold rural and indigenous communities hostage. In Brazil, deploying soldiers to combat deforestation has hampered operations by better-trained environmental agencies.

Here, InSight Crime provides a detailed look at why militarized attempts to stop deforestation in the Amazon so often fail.

1. The Forest as Battlefield: A Lack of Specialized Training

Bolsonaro has put the military in charge of interventions to combat environmental crime in Brazil’s Amazon. But it hasn't been up to the task, according to a Reuters investigation published in March.

Piles of castanheira, a protected species of chestnut, were passed off as jequitibá, a tree that can be cut down legally and is widely used to make furniture, Reuters reported. While environmental authorities can make such distinctions, soldiers often cannot, an agent working for the nation's environmental agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis — IBAMA) told the news organization.

Agencies like IBAMA, meanwhile, have faced sharp cutbacks. Bolsonaro even authorized the military to coordinate work on behalf of Brazil's conservation agency (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade — ICMBio).

When asked about the capacity of the military to combat environmental crime, a spokesperson in the Brazilian Ministry of Defense told InSight Crime in an email that assessments and seizures made as part of Operation Green Brazil 2 have fallen under the "exclusive purview" of agents from environmental protection agencies accompanying troops on missions.

SEE ALSO: Plots of Amazon Rainforest Illegally Sold on Facebook

The trouble with having the military lead in combating environmental crime and deforestation is that it's not a function of a fighting force.

In Colombia, for example, the military is already tasked with disabling drug gangs and targeting armed groups. The added burden of protecting the nation’s forests has already begun to generate discontent within its ranks, according to La Silla Vacía.

A retired soldier told the media outlet that troops feel Operation Artemisa should be the responsibility of the police. And a senior government official working in defense revealed that some military commanders had been reluctant to fight environmental crime rather than armed groups.

2. A Shot in the Dark: Lack of Identifiable Enemies

Military forces are typically trained to seek out and target an identifiable enemy. In rooting out environmental crime, it is not always clear who is the enemy. Troops also often arrive once the damage is done, and perpetrators are long gone.

IBAMA agents told Reuters that after a four-hour trip to intercept illegal loggers felling trees near the Novo River (Río Novo) in western Brazil, soldiers and IBAMA officials arrived to a deserted, deforested site.

The Reuters report also shed light on the range of actors involved in the rainforest's destruction.

Illegal loggers first cut down prized hardwood trees, and then farmers move onto the land, razing what is left. Paperwork and deeds are also forged to feign ownership, according to the report.

While this may appear to function as an organized crime network, the actors are often disparate and not equally culpable. Poor farmers have encroached on the Amazon as a way to subsist.

Traffickers, meanwhile, employ rural people to clear large swaths of land for coca cultivation and drug plane landing strips. Armed groups have ordered local communities to cut and burn trees in protected areas of the nation's Amazon region to make way for coca crops.

This can lead to confusion in who exactly should be targeted by military interventions, with residents at risk of getting caught in the crossfire. People in Colombia's central department of Meta told BBC Mundo that Operation Artemis led to rural inhabitants getting caught up in the "war," with cattle confiscated and entire families evicted from their homes.

A 2020 report by the Colombia-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz - FIP) warned that militarized attempts to protect the environment risked local people being seen as "invaders" by soldiers and ultimately becoming targets. All this took place as some 98,000 hectares of forest in the Colombian Amazon were lost in 2019 alone.

SEE ALSO: Criminal Groups Clear Colombia’s Forests One Hectare at a Time

In early March, Mongabay reported that 68 people had been captured as part of Operation Artemisa as of December 2020, citing data from Colombia's General Command of the Military Forces. But an anonymous source from the Attorney General's Office told the media outlet that not one of those caught had been a "big funder" of deforestation.

This trend is echoed throughout the Amazon. In Peru's Madre de Dios region, small-scale illegal miners have been targeted as a result of Operation Mercurio. Yet businessmen laundering illegal gold via front companies are much more difficult to catch than those extracting it.

Meanwhile, as Brazil's military took on a greater role in protecting Amazon forests, IBAMA has not been penalizing the heads of networks dedicated to illegal logging and mining, according to officials who spoke with the Associated Press last year.

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