Crimes against the Climate: Violence and Deforestation in the Amazon
Crimes against the Climate: Violence and Deforestation in the Amazon
View of dredges on fire in the Amazonas River at Rio Pure National Natural Park in Amazonas, Colombia on November 6, 2023. HO, PRENSA POLICIA NACIONAL / AFP
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 18 minutes

Crimes against the Climate: Violence and Deforestation in the Amazon

Organised crime has infiltrated the Amazon basin, seeking land for growing coca, rivers for drug trafficking and veins of gold underground. These groups are endangering the rainforest and the safety of those attempting to defend it. It is imperative that regional governments take protective measures.

The fires and clearcutting rampant in the Amazon have stoked global concern about the future of the world’s largest rainforest, which plays a vital role in containing climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by combustion of fossil fuels. What can get lost in the international debate is that organised crime is a major driver of this environmental destruction. Curbing the activity of illicit groups in the region is imperative, not just because of the environmental degradation these organisations inflict, but the increasing danger they pose to communities in the region.

Levels of violence in the Amazon are high, even by the standards of Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that, with only 8 per cent of the global population, accounts for 29 per cent of homicides worldwide. Homicide rates in the Amazon, moreover, surpass regional averages. This violence occurs in rural areas and smaller cities that tend to be under the radar of national governments, and is therefore widely overlooked.

Within the Amazon, territories that are host to legal and illegal logging and mining, coca cultivation and drug trafficking suffer both the worst ecological damage and the most violence. These areas often overlap with the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples, who historically have played a crucial role in safeguarding the rainforest. Not surprisingly, crime rings plundering the Amazon’s bounty have made environmental activists their prime targets. In 2022, one in five killings of land and environmental defenders worldwide took place in the Amazon, with Colombia and Brazil the two most dangerous countries for this work.

The relationship between the escalating climate crisis and violent crime is finally getting the attention it warrants. The 28th UN climate summit, or COP28, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, features “peace” on its agenda for the first time in this gathering’s history. By examining the interplay of violence and climate in different parts of the immense rainforest – the Amazon basin covers as much territory as India and the European Union combined – states and foreign partners can start to identify ways to protect it and the people who reside there. In three parts of the Amazon, as detailed below, the interplay between crime and environmental exploitation shine through.

Annual forest loss in millions of hectares. Large areas are deforested every year in the Amazon region.
Homicides per hundred thousand people across the Amazon. In many countries, homicide rates within the Amazon are disproportionately high.

Putumayo, Colombia: Safeguarding Indigenous Defenders

Conflict, peace and environment often intersect in Colombia, where natural resources serve as a foundation for economic development but also bankroll guerrillas and criminals. Armed groups make money both from legal businesses such as cattle ranching and oil drilling and from illegal gold mining and coca growing. Abetted by widespread corruption, these extractive operations have caused visible environmental deterioration. In a June 2019 statement, Colombia’s transitional justice body notably described the natural environment as “a silent victim” of the country’s long-running armed conflicts.

Accumulated forest lost in per cent since 2000. The accumulated forest loss since 2000 in Putumayo (bars) is significantly higher than the average across other Colombian departments within the Amazon region (line).

There are few places in the Amazon as violent as Putumayo, which is situated in the Andean foothills bordering Ecuador and Peru and is home to headwaters of many Amazon tributaries. At least 21 massacres (ie, killings with three or more victims) have taken place since 2020, with civilians, soldiers and armed group members among the victims. The violence is in part a by-product of the coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking that have been mainstays of the region for decades. The drug trade also inflicts environmental harm: growers raze trees to create coca plantations, and carve makeshift roads through the jungle to start new plots. Chemicals used in cocaine laboratories are discharged into streams and soil. The theft of crude oil from pipelines in rural Putumayo – used in laboratories as an ingredient in coca processing – causes spills, sometimes gravely contaminating water sources on which local people depend. 

A social leader told Crisis Group that armed groups force reluctant farmers to grow coca, threatening to hurt those who resist. “The motor of violence is the issue of drug trafficking”, said a Putumayo farmer leader. Between 1985 and 2011, amid Colombia’s internal conflict, the region witnessed over 8,000 deaths and 2,000 forced disappearances among its population of 300,000.

The industry has continued to expand – in 2022, the total area of land used to grow coca in Putumayo increased by 70 per cent – and now there are new sources of violence. Much of the fighting in today’s Putumayo is the result of battles for territorial control between two criminal groups that have arisen in the aftermath of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). One is Comandos de la Frontera, which started operating in the area in 2020. The other is the Carolina Ramírez Front of the Estado Mayor Central, a dissident FARC faction that refused to sign the 2016 accord. In their quest to achieve dominance in Putumayo, these groups attack each other and anyone else whom they suspect is providing the enemy with services, shelter or information.

Area under coca cultivation. In 2022, Putumayo’s total area under coca crop cultivation ranked high among Colombian states.

For decades, criminal groups in Putumayo have targeted Indigenous groups who are vocal about environmental defence. In 2009, this violence spiralled to such an extent that Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared that the Siona, one of the ethnicities in the area, were facing an “imminent process of extermination”. Almost a decade later, the situation had only grown worse. In 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Colombian state to take measures to safeguard Indigenous lives, including efforts to clear landmines in Siona territory.

Civil society groups say the Colombian government has done too little in this regard. In 2021 and 2022, according to human rights observatory Indepaz, at least 95 Indigenous leaders were killed in Colombia including five in Putumayo. Clashes between the Comandos de la Frontera and the Carolina Ramírez front in September displaced nearly 500 Indigenous people. In addition, more than a thousand families were confined to their homes and villages.

Annual homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand) in states with low to moderate coca cultivation, compared to those with moderate to high.

Criminal groups also prey on Putumayo’s legal oil industry. They frequently extort oil firms and target their operators and service providers, as well as local governments receiving drilling royalties. According to community leaders in Putumayo, armed outfits now depend on the oil industry for income to such an extent that they have told locals to quell any protest against the firms.

Putumayo is becoming an even bigger prize as criminal groups look to expand their operations outside Colombia to Ecuador, a drug export hub, and establish new routes to Europe through Brazil. Cocaine is shipped to ports in the former country and via the Putumayo River straight to buyers in Brazil. Rivers have become “highways for drug trafficking”, an Indigenous leader said. Sucumbíos, a province in northern Ecuador, is now a magnet for Colombian armed groups, a local source there reported. Comandos de la Frontera in particular has set up camps in Sucumbíos. It is recruiting new members in Ecuador, as well as in Peru.

Madre de Dios, Peru: The Search for Gold

Another Amazon region hard-hit by organised crime is the department of Madre de Dios in Peru, which borders Bolivia and Brazil. This province has long been home to Indigenous peoples such as the Harakbut and more recently has come to host settlements of illegal gold prospectors and drug traffickers. People engaged in illicit activity first started settling in the area in the 20th century: Madre de Dios is the least populous department in Peru, and the combination of natural resources and feeble state presence made it a magnet for rubber tappers, loggers and gold miners working outside the legal economy.

Despite its reputation for strong environmental conservation measures, with roughly half its territory designated as protected areas, Madre de Dios has undergone rapid change in the last decade. In 2010, the state completed construction of the final stretch of the Interoceanic Highway, connecting the area to Brazil and opening up the jungle to more gold miners with heavy equipment. Coupled with rising gold prices in the new millennium, the new road changed the face of Madre de Dios forever. The area’s population surged from approximately 30,000 in 1981 to over 140,000 in 2017, driven largely by the gold bonanza, which is also the main cause of deforestation in the region. An estimated 18,000 hectares of trees were cleared as a result of gold mining in Peru’s southern Amazon in 2021 and 2022, with most of this deforestation taking place in Madre de Dios. The search for gold has also led to widespread use of toxic quicksilver mercury, which contaminates the soil and poses a major threat to public health. The estimated 50,000 gold miners in Madre de Dios discharge about 180 metric tonnes of mercury into the environment each year.

Although more coca is grown in Colombia than any other country, most of the coca cultivated in the Amazon basin comes from Peru.

Madre de Dios is also witnessing a sharp hike in coca production. Although more coca is grown in Colombia than any other country, most of the coca cultivated in the Amazon basin comes from Peru. Madre de Dios was almost free of the plant before the COVID-19 pandemic – which some believe distracted the state from law enforcement activities – but it saw a 274 per cent rise in coca cultivation between 2021 and 2022, and several cocaine base paste laboratories have been detected there as well. According to a state official, drug trafficking and cocaine base paste production are among the reasons why the Brazilian crime syndicate Comando Vermelho has started operating in the area.

Like other criminal hotspots in the Amazon, Madre de Dios has become a violent place. Since 2017, the region has had the highest homicide rate in Peru. Local environmental defenders and a state official directly attribute the murders to the expansion of illegal mining, which not only drives turf wars among miners but also attracts criminals from elsewhere who vie for premium goldfields and seek to extort miners. Local sources describe mining towns as “a free haven, without state control” and denounce the impunity for illegal gold miners and the inaction of police.

Miners often attack or threaten Indigenous people and environmental defenders who report illicit activities to state authorities. An environmental defender in Madre de Dios described to Crisis Group how he barely survived an attempt on his life after armed men followed him to his house. That said, victims also include miners and gang members, many from outside the region. Several corpses have been “disappeared” in the mines, said a state official, who added that authorities have found evidence of bodies being burned. To protect themselves, gold mining entrepreneurs have resorted to paying for armed security guards, who have fuelled further waves of killings in mining towns as they confront local gangs.

Homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand) in Madre de Dios (bars) have increased sharply in recent years, exceeding the average across other Peruvian regions (line).

With prospectors – predominantly men – flocking to the area, thousands of women, including girls, have been trafficked to Madre de Dios. They are subjected to sexual exploitation in so-called prostibars, a Peruvian term for brothel. In 2019, over 1,200 police officers and military commandos conducted a raid on the mining town La Pampa, expelling approximately 6,000 miners, making dozens of arrests and rescuing over 50 women from situations of sexual exploitation. But such sporadic operations have done little to eradicate illegal mining. In 2022, miners staged protests in response to another state offensive, leading to clashes with police that left one dead and a dozen wounded.

Itaituba, Brazil and its Surrounds: A Mining “Free-for-All”

Accumulated forest lost in per cent since 2000. The accumulated forest loss since 2000 in Itaituba, Pará state (bars) exceeds the average across other Brazilian states within the Amazon region (line).

The Itaituba municipality in Brazil also saw a gold rush after the military dictatorship constructed the Transamazônica Highway in the 1970s. As the road cut through the rainforest, and many of the surrounding lands had no legal owner, prospectors thronged the region, transforming it into a gold mining hub by the early 1980s. Decades of prospecting has exacted a heavy toll on the environment. Despite being part of the protected Tapajós watershed, deforestation in Itaituba has tripled in the last five years alone. In February 2023, the Brazilian state of Pará declared an “environmental emergency” in fifteen municipalities, including Itaituba, to address widespread environmental crime. Satellite imagery shows vast barren tracts in the area, indicating not only the removal of tree cover but also the contamination of soil with mercury. That has endangered the wellbeing of Indigenous people living in Itaituba: hair and blood samples taken from this community show mercury levels far exceeding health standards.

While miners have dug for gold in Itaituba for at least 40 years, it was under hard-right former President Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) that the enterprise became a free-for-all. Bolsonaro, who comes from a gold prospecting family, promised miners “carte blanche”. To entice more explorers into the region, he cut funding for state agencies tasked with environmental control and protection of Indigenous peoples. A police officer working in the area explained that, while the government made no significant legislative changes, the miners knew “they could do whatever they want”. In 2022, Bolsonaro vetoed the budget allocation for regulating and demarcating Indigenous lands.

Between 2010 and 2020, mining on Indigenous lands in Brazil increased by nearly 500 per cent.

The number of illegal mines has since risen in Indigenous lands, and violent miners often threaten local leaders who publicly oppose their activities. Because lands are not titled, mining gangs fight each other for territorial control. The sluggish implementation of demarcation has allowed gold miners to encroach upon Indigenous peoples’ lands. Between 2010 and 2020, mining on Indigenous lands in Brazil increased by nearly 500 per cent

Consider the fate of the Munduruku, an Indigenous people living in Itaituba and other municipalities in Pará. Satellite imagery shows nearly two dozen clandestine airstrips – from which illicit gold miners move gold and drugs out of the Amazon – in Munduruku lands. The Munduruku are at risk of violent attack, mainly from gold miners: 22 of their leaders have faced threats. In the Jacareacanga municipality, also in Pará state, illegal miners burned down the house of a Munduruku community leader as retaliation for a state-led crackdown on illegal mining that started two days earlier. Indigenous representatives say local police are complicit in organised crime. “They go to the garimpo [mines] … to get their share of the gold”, said one. Agri-business ventures, such as cattle ranches and soy plantations, have also grown, contributing to rapid deforestation and further endangering native communities.

Gold mining in the Amazon.

Despite state and corporate investment, Brazil’s Amazon often resembles the Wild West, as the westerly territories of North America – nominally administered by the United States but often sharply contested between white settlers and Indigenous peoples – were known during the lawless scrambles for precious metals of the 19th century. Gold miners are frequently armed and unafraid to use their weapons. “Things are settled without state intervention”, said an Itaituba lawyer. During his presidency, Bolsonaro signed decrees that made it easier to purchase weapons legally. Firearm registrations in the Brazilian Amazon proceeded to rise by 91 per cent from 2019 to 2022. “There’s a relation [between violence and] the presence of natural resources”, said a federal police officer working in the region. Disputes over gold ownership often end up being resolved by individuals taking justice into their own hands. “We wouldn’t have these kinds of problems if the police were present in miner’s settlements, but since they’re not, fights result in deaths”, said the officer. 

Criminal organisations have expanded into other profit-making schemes. Illicit gold production often finances a cascade of associated crimes including human trafficking, forced labour and sexual exploitation of women and children. The connection between illicit mining and drug trafficking has deepened, as cocaine profits are laundered through investments in digging for gold. There are also numerous pathways for illegally mined gold to infiltrate the legal supply chain through the use of falsified papers.

Homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand) in Itaituba (bars) exceeds the average across other Brazilian regions (line).

Tempted by massive profits from gold, groups like São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital, Brazil’s largest crime syndicate, are now reportedly present in Itaituba, and are using illegal mining to launder drug profits. According to a Brazilian police official, this organisation collects a percentage from certain mining operations in the Amazon while also financing illegal mining projects.


Mitigating climate change will depend in part upon the conservation and restoration of ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, which play a vital global role in absorbing the carbon humanity has spewed into the atmosphere. The Amazon is now under direct threat from organised crime, which has evolved to hold an extensive portfolio, often reinvesting the profits in environmentally harmful enterprises. Corruption of local police and courts by these same groups hinders effective forest conservation and prosecution of those who target Indigenous activists and land defenders. As a result, national authorities across the Amazon need to ramp up efforts to curb crime and the degradation and violence it causes by investigating and trying illegal groups, providing local populations with alternatives to the illicit economy, and curbing threats to the environment and those actively engaged in its defence.

A regionally coordinated effort, perhaps through the Amazon Treaty Cooperation Organization (ATCO), would mark a major step forward. A conference organised by ATCO in August 2023, with delegations from eight Amazon countries, issued a declaration committing the signatories to “facilitate the exchange of information and enhance police and intelligence cooperation to combat illegal activities and environmental crimes affecting the Amazon Region”. The final declaration proposed creating a regional police cooperation centre in Manaus, Brazil, in the heart of the rainforest. More regional policing cooperation is certainly welcome, but authorities should be sure to coordinate with representatives of local communities, particularly Indigenous groups, which have the most accurate information about what is happening on the ground. 

Brazil and Colombia … have both reduced deforestation rates in 2023 … [and] aim to eliminate deforestation by 2030.

Brazil and Colombia, which have progressive governments still in the first half of their terms, have both reduced deforestation rates in 2023. Both aim to eliminate deforestation by 2030. These two administrations have also devised promising new schemes for initiatives such as providing financial support to local communities for forest conservation and eradicating illegal gold mining. But there is a pressing need for better coordination among regional governments, which has often faltered due to mutual distrust. Civil society groups should participate as well in monitoring violent land invaders pursuing illegal economic activities. Only a collective effort involving multiple partners, along with increased funding from foreign governments committed to conservation of the rainforest, can prevent the Amazon from reaching a nadir of ecological destruction. To this end, Brazil is proposing creation of a fund to conserve tropical forests at COP28.

Other proposals could also help staunch criminal exploitation of the Amazon. Indigenous groups are advocating for an expedited process to grant them collective land titles, which would afford more territorial rights and a stronger legal position to halt illicit logging and mining, and the violence that can attend them. Rural development initiatives could provide communities with sustainable alternatives to illicit activities that harm the environment. Measures to help ensure that commodities from the Amazon are traceable – such as third-party audits, transparency reports by corporations and supply chain disclosures – could also prevent the infiltration of illicit gold into the legal supply chain. Law enforcement efforts, meanwhile, should centre on targeting illicit money flows and the financial backers of environmental crimes.

The United Arab Emirates, which is hosting COP28, aspires to make the gathering “the most inclusive UN Climate Change Conference to date”. Given that Indigenous peoples and community representatives from all over the world, including the Amazon, have travelled to Dubai, it is a rare moment for decision-makers at the highest levels to recognise the environmental threats they experience in the flesh. These people, who dwell on the front lines of climate change, are among the best positioned to help safeguard the planet’s most critical ecosystems. To do so, however, they need urgent assistance.

Data Appendix

Figure 1

Figure 1 depicts the annual total forest loss in million hectares across all countries in the Amazon. It includes only states within the Amazon. Forest cover is based on data from 2000. Calculations are based on Hansen Global Forest Change Data at a 30m spatial resolution by the University of Maryland, accessed via Google Earth Engine Data catalogue. The data is processed to fit the FAO’s definition of forest which is “land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent”. The area affected by deforestation is calculated per state, before being aggregated for each country. Data is smoothed through the R loess function. 

Figure 2

The map shows homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand people) in the states of the Amazon for 2022. National average homicide rates are also shown. Calculations are based on homicide data provided by the National Police of Peru, the National Police of Colombia, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security for Brazil and census data from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics of Peru, the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) of Colombia, and the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). 

Figures 3 and 7

The charts depict cumulative forest loss since 2001 in per cent in the two areas of interest, Putumayo, Colombia and Pará, Brazil (bars). The loss is compared to the average forest loss across all other states in the respective countries (lines). Data is first processed in conformity with the definition of forest in Figure 1, then percentage of forest loss is computed by comparing annual forest area to the 2000 baseline forest cover.

% of forest loss = Ai /A2000 * 100%

with Ai denoting the area of forest loss in hectares in a specific year i, and A2000 the area of forest cover in 2000. The percentage of the cumulative forest lost since 2001 is then computed.

Figure 4

The map depicts the area of coca crop cultivation in 2022 per municipality as provided by the UNODC Global Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme’s SIMCI project in Colombia. The darker the shade of green, the larger the area under coca cultivation in a given municipality.

Figure 5

This chart compares trends in homicide rates in Colombian departments with a total area under coca crop cultivation for 2010 to 2022 that is above the median (top 50 per cent) versus below the median (bottom 50 per cent), based on data from Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos (SIMCI). Homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand people) are calculated based on homicide data provided by the National Police of Colombia and census data from the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).

Figure 6:

The chart shows homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand people) in Madre de Dios and the rest of the country, based on homicide data from the National Police of Peru and population data from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics of Peru. 

Figure 8:

This map depicts gold mining in the Amazon. No further processing of the data. Source: Amazon Mining Watch.

Figure 9:

The chart shows homicide rates (number of homicides per hundred thousand people) in Itaituba and the rest of the country, based on homicide data from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security of Brazil and population data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). 

Data Bibliography

  • Amazon Mining Watch. 2020. Mining areas detected.
  • Census data, Colombia. National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).
  • Census data, Peru. National Institute of Statistics and Informatics.
  • Census data, Brazil. Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
  • Coca Crop data, Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos (SIMCI). 2023. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia Office.
  • GADM. 2012. Database of Global Administrative Areas.
  • Hansen Global Forest Change Data. Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C.O. Justice, and J.R.G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change”. Science 342.
  • Homicide data, Colombia. Policía Nacional de Colombia.
  • Homicide data, Peru. Sistema de Denuncias Policiales (SIDPOL), Peru.
  • Homicide data, Brazil. Brazilian National Public Security, Prison and Drug Information System (SINESP).
  • Oil Extraction. 2023. Agencia Nacional de Hidrocarburos.


Project Director, Climate, Environment and Conflict

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