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OPINION: An ecosystem of organized crime threatens the Amazon, and global climate action

by Robert Muggah and Mac Margolis | Igarapé Institute
Monday, 25 April 2022 09:27 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An armed Kayapo indigenous man patrols the Menkragnoti Indigenous Land to defend their territory against attacks by loggers and miners at the Krimej village in southwestern Para state, Brazil, September 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For all the talk about how destruction in the Amazon leads to greenhouse gases, there is less discussion about how to rein in the increasingly agile cabal of criminal entrepreneurs

Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Group. Mac Margolis is an adviser to the Igarapé Institute.

No one knows exactly when the graffiti first appeared in the alleyways of Cruzeiro do Sul, a sleepy town of 90,000 people in the western Brazilian state of Acre. Yet there was no mistaking the meaning of the black lettering - CV and PCC – spray-painted across the city’s stucco building façades.

CV is short for the Red Command, in Portuguese, and PCC for the First Command of the Capital – two of Brazil’s most notorious drug trafficking factions. Their battles over turf have long bloodied the streets of the nation’s wealthiest cities. Now they are exporting mayhem to the Amazon Basin.

The spread of Brazil’s gangs into the Amazon is hardly new.

The threat posed by factions to towns like Cruzeiro do Sul was evident as far back as 2017, when a member was gunned down in the street – a brazen daylight attack that locals talk about to this day. Their assault on the world’s largest tropical rainforest is still a work in progress.

Migrating criminals are blazing a new frontier in a land already benighted by extraordinary rates of violence. And as drug factions extend their franchises north, they join a complex ecosystem of environmental mafia dedicated to plundering natural resources such as gold and timber.

As gangsters move cocaine procured in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru across Brazil, they trample livelihoods, raze forests and hurl carbon into the atmosphere. Along the way, they corrupt local economies and imperil protected areas safeguarded by indigenous communities.

Welcome to the 21st century Amazon, where the raging climate emergency is also a public security crisis.

The outbreak of organized violence in the Amazon belies a larger demographic upheaval. After decades of rapid urbanization in Brazil’s coastal cities, migration, employment and enterprise are shifting inland. This is turning once second and third tier cities into datelines of growth and opportunity. The predators are simply following the money.

While homicide slightly eased in many of Brazil’s biggest southern metropolises, frontier regions grew deadlier. In 2020, the nine Brazilian states in the country’s so-called Legal Amazon registered higher rates of lethal violence than the national average.

New research finds that while intentional violence claimed the lives of 23.9 of every 100,000 Brazilians in 2020, the rate was 29.6 per 100,000 in the Amazon. Three Amazonian states logged an even deadlier toll: Amapá (41.7), Acre (32.9) and Pará (32.5).

Today, at least 7 of 10 of the region’s roughly 30 million people live in cities, some of them unforgiving places where inequality is thriving, and opportunities for a decent salary are as scarce as blue skies during the burning season.

The crime blotter is scattered wider in the Amazon.

Danger multiplies under the forest canopy, where governing institutions are weak, monitoring is patchy, and the arm of the law falls short.

Yet remarkably, environmental crime seldom surfaces during major international processes on climate change like COP26.

For all the talk about how destruction in the Amazon contributes to greenhouse gases, there is less discussion about how to rein in the increasingly agile cabal of criminal entrepreneurs who profit from the pillage. 

Well over 90% of deforestation in the tropics is considered illegal, yet the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes no mention of environmental criminals, their clandestine markets, or the shady enablers who launder ill-gotten gains. Traders and bankers are also mostly silent about the crime suffusing supply chains.

Part of the problem is that disrupting Amazon criminality is hard.

While the criminal groups plundering the Amazon are organized, local authorities struggle with patchy data, thin policing, and a bureaucratic disconnect among state agencies tasked with tracking environmental crimes and bringing the perpetrators to account.

More muscle is not the answer. Despite nearly 400 federal police raids launched across the Legal Amazon between 2016-2021, crime continued unabated.

Between 2018-2021, the armed forces launched over 100 special military operations in the Amazon. Not only were these expensive, they failed to slow environmental crime  or reduce violence. 

Targeted investment in intelligence, investigation and prosecution, especially of big league criminals, is needed. So too are legitimate alternatives for people caught in illicit economies, along with the cleaning up crime-infested supply chains.  

This is more than another rainforest tragedy. The criminality driving environmental crime has knock-on effects, including more insecurity, corrosion of authority, reduced trust, and sense of fear and insecurity across the Amazon basin and beyond.

Megalopolitan Brazil knows the script only too well. The cities and towns in the path of the Amazonian crime wave must now write their own.