Landmark Amazon Summit Needs to Grapple with Crime as well as Climate
Landmark Amazon Summit Needs to Grapple with Crime as well as Climate
Eliane Muller, 40, walks next to a burnt tract of the Amazon forest as it is cleared by farmers, after the fire hit 2 acres from her cassava plantation in Rio Pardo, Rondonia, Brazil September 16, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean 10 minutes

Landmark Amazon Summit Needs to Grapple with Crime as well as Climate

On 8 and 9 August, the presidents of eight countries will meet in Brazil to discuss means of countering the threats facing the Amazon rainforest. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Bram Ebus explains that inter-governmental cooperation and a regional security strategy will be essential.

Why are the presidents of Amazonian countries meeting?

The leaders of countries with territory reaching into the Amazon basin – namely, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – will meet in the Brazilian city of Belém to discuss ways to ensure the jungle is better protected. 

The meeting takes place against the backdrop of record temperatures around the world, which have highlighted the imperative of tackling climate change. Preserving the Amazon – the largest rainforest in the world – is a necessary part of that effort. Logging and human-made forest fires are driving deforestation in the place often referred to as the “lungs” of the earth. So many trees have been cut down or burned that the carbon dioxide the Amazon emits now sometimes exceeds the forest’s capacity to absorb it. The Amazon, long crucial in fighting climate change, could become a net source of greenhouse gases.

The challenges the eight convening governments face in halting or at least slowing the razing of forest are immense.

The challenges the eight convening governments face in halting or at least slowing the razing of forest are immense. Criminal groups are expanding across the Amazon, extracting natural resources and aggravating environmental damage. Their illicit activities are also generating violence that threatens many of the approximately 40 million people who live in the region. As climate change intensifies, it could compound these threats by generating severe weather hazards, which could lead to worsening food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition. These problems, in turn, could displace much of the local population and exacerbate deadly conflict.

The eight leaders will gather under the aegis of the multilateral Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), which aims to promote the “harmonious development of the Amazonian territories”. The organisation, which was formed in 1978, atrophied in the late 2010s. Part of the problem was that individual states lacked commitment to conservation: Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, presided over massive destruction of the rainforest throughout his term. Another issue was that political frictions among the member states chipped away at the organisation’s effectiveness. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – whose re-election in 2018 was widely criticised for being heavily rigged – was excluded from ACTO’s gathering in Leticia, Colombia in 2019. The election of President Gustavo Petro in Colombia and re-election of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil in the past year, however, have galvanised the organisation. They lead the two Amazonian countries with the most robust economies and largest populations; Petro and Lula also have re-established their countries’ ties with the Maduro government. Both identify as progressives and are championing strong conservation agendas they want to see through early in their terms.

Why should security be high on the agenda of the Amazon meeting?

The Amazon has faced an unprecedented increase in violence over the last five years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, South American governments were overburdened coping with the health emergency; as a result, they had to limit their operations in the Amazon. Criminal groups, in turn, capitalised on the opening. The region is rife with illegal gold mining and cattle ranching. These activities are not only intrinsically linked to the destruction of the forest, but also have sparked attacks on local communities and placed state officials at risk of violence. In a preparatory meeting held in Leticia in July – which brought Petro and Lula together with environment ministers, civil society delegations, Indigenous groups and business leaders – the issue of security came up repeatedly. Delegates demanding safeguards for Indigenous peoples and other local communities were particularly vocal.

State officials at the Leticia meeting described in detail the challenges they face. Breakaway factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – which are known as dissident, because they reject the main organisation’s 2016 peace treaty with the government, but are now engaged in illicit commerce rather than rebellion – have expanded their turf in the Amazon. Due to the FARC dissidents’ activities, Colombian park rangers are having trouble getting into the nature reserves where they work. Meanwhile, Ecuador and Peru are grappling with a wave of deforestation connected to coca growing and illegal mining. In the Peruvian Madre de Dios region, in the Amazon near Bolivia and Brazil, illegal gold miners have turned swathes of land into a moonscape, while crimes such as homicide and human trafficking have become more widespread. Unfortunately, both countries lack the resources to mount far-reaching law enforcement campaigns to curb organised crime, and neither has been able to create programs that give residents legal alternatives for their employment in illicit businesses.

Illicit groups hold sway in the Amazon in other countries, as well. In Venezuela, non-state armed groups control most of the low-lying south, lured by the gold mines there. In some areas, these groups have supplanted the state: they levy extortion fees as taxes, mete out rudimentary justice and restrict civilians’ movement. Meanwhile, lobbies representing cattle ranching and large-scale agriculture have convinced sympathetic members of Congress in Brazil to weaken Lula’s ambitious plans for conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon.

In the Amazon basin, criminal activity does not respect borders. “Today, unfortunately, we are witnessing a process of domination by armed groups and transnational crime that is gaining power”, Colombia’s Environment Minister Susana Muhamad told the preparatory gathering in Leticia. “That threatens processes of equity, ecosystems and even the very constitution of nation-states”. Effective national policies are a crucial but only partial response to the critical threats facing the Amazon. The need for cooperation between states is manifest.

How do criminal groups operate in the Amazon, and what can be done to stop them?

The inability of state authorities to protect the Amazon has contributed to the growth of illicit economies and cross-border criminal organisations. The two syndicates with the largest footprints in the region are Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital and Comando Vermelho, originally from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, who compete violently for territorial control. Both criminal groups have created alliances with legal businesses and corrupt state officials, which has amplified their impunity, and with it the harm they inflict on the environment and local communities. Cross-border criminal networks have assumed the role of de facto authorities, enforcing their will on local populations through threats and violence.

A recent UN analysis of the drug business in the Amazon describes the “convergence of multiple forms of criminality” in the region. Hefty profits from drug trafficking are being reinvested in both legal and illegal businesses, such as gold mining, cattle ranching and industrial agriculture, driving further deforestation and other environmental damage. The report also warns of increased corruption, attacks on Indigenous and minority groups, human trafficking and sexual violence. The area is becoming increasingly unsafe. Leticia, which lies in a point of land bordered by Brazil and Peru, holds the unfortunate distinction of being Colombia’s second most violent town, with a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Brazil’s immense Amazonas state, the homicide rate is 42 per 100,000 inhabitants, twice the national average of 21.

Rising crime has led to greater environmental degradation, including deforestation.

Rising crime has led to greater environmental degradation, including deforestation. Bolivia and Ecuador faced record rates of deforestation in 2022, as a result of logging, expansion of agriculture and oil exploration – much of it conducted illegally. Bolivia, where soy cultivation has swelled, now accounts for 9 per cent of the primary forest destruction in the world. Of the countries in ACTO, Guyana and Suriname have the highest percentage of forest cover, but even there, wildcat miners and timber traffickers, often backed by foreign capital, have expanded their environmental footprint.

These trends can be reversed. Deforestation rates fell in 2023 in both Brazil and Colombia after reaching record levels over the past half-decade. In Brazil, the drop can be at least partly attributed to environmental and law enforcement agencies tightening their efforts. In Colombia, on the other hand, deforestation spiked following the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, which had for years zealously guarded the forests because they hid out there. The guerrillas stopped doing so after they demobilised, and the state failed to step into the role of protecting the forests, leaving the new generation of armed groups to step in.

Now, dissident FARC groups that never signed the 2016 peace deal, or that rearmed in spite of it, are using their supposed contribution to environmental protection as a means of strengthening their hand in negotiations with the Petro administration in the framework of the “total peace” initiative. The group Estado Mayor Central-FARC, for example, controls large swathes of the Colombian Amazon and has ordered local farmers to stop destroying the forest. “There was no direct action from the authorities or the government”, said a social leader living in one of Colombia’s Amazon deforestation hotspots, speaking about logging restrictions imposed in the last year. “What mostly influenced things had been the willingness of the armed groups to issue a written statement prohibiting people from logging with a hefty fine of up to 20 million [Colombian pesos, equal to $5,000] per hectare”. Knowing that environmental issues are central to Petro’s agenda, the FARC dissidents hope this bargaining chip will come in handy at the negotiation table. The net effect has been a new drop in deforestation.

Amazonian states should seize the opportunity at the Belém summit to support greater cooperation where crime is rife, such as in the tri-border area where Peru, Colombia and Brazil meet. They should organise joint operations, promote intelligence sharing, and align legal frameworks to tackle organised crime and environmental violations. While cooperation among nations is vital for addressing these challenges, governments should not hesitate to initiate unilateral concrete actions swiftly, being sure to involve all their components with relevant expertise. The increasingly effective collaboration between Colombia’s Environment Ministry and the General Attorney’s Office to identify financiers of deforestation and prosecute them is a good example.

What should participants focus on achieving at the summit, and how can outside actors help?

The gathering in Belém could be the platform Latin America needs to coordinate strategies to protect the Amazon and develop sustainable economic alternatives to businesses that exploit and destroy the environment. For it to succeed, however, diplomats must smooth over the various patches of discord among the participating South American countries. Take Brazil and Colombia: insiders fear a lack of personal chemistry between the two presidents could hinder progress. Moreover, there are significant substantive differences between the presidents’ approaches. During the pre-summit in Leticia, the Petro administration pushed for a ban on oil exploration in the Amazon region, despite knowing that Lula hopes to develop an offshore oil block at the very point where the river enters the Atlantic.

It also will be important to ensure that the participating countries do not use the summit as window dressing or solely for ulterior motives. Venezuela is increasingly represented at multilateral meetings after years of isolation during the “maximum pressure” campaign initiated by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Caracas now insists it is committed to defending the Amazon. President Maduro in fact attended COP27, the 2022 global climate summit held in Egypt, but critics point out that he used the opportunity as part of his campaign to regain normal diplomatic status rather than advancing environmental causes. Partner nations at the summit should press Maduro to stop the well-documented involvement of Venezuelan state forces in illegal mining, often in collaboration with non-state armed groups. The Maduro administration should, of course, honour commitments reached during the event.

Governments ... need to adopt proactive policies to address the growing risk of climate-driven natural disasters.

Governments also need to adopt proactive policies to address the growing risk of climate-driven natural disasters. For example, because of the dry spell caused by the climatological phenomenon known as El Niño, the regular practice of clearing land by cutting down trees and burning vegetation could spur large wildfires throughout the Amazon. As extreme climate events occur more frequently, countries should create early warning systems, emergency funds and up-to-date disaster management strategies. Cross-regional responses should design coordinated efforts to address peripheral, hard-to-reach border areas, such as Colombia’s eastern Amazon region and parts of Brazil bordering Peru and Bolivia.

South America, however, cannot defend the Amazon alone. Backing – particularly financial support –from the U.S. government and European donors is essential. There are promising developments on this front: after Lula visited Washington in February, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged $500 million to the Amazon Fund, a mechanism to help prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, established in 2008. Norway has already donated a total of $1.2 billion to this same initiative. The Fund is primarily set up for Amazon conservation in Brazil, but a small part of the money is destined for projects targeting other countries with tropical forest. Bilateral agreements – such as the one Guyana signed with the European Union to stop illegal logging – are also helpful; they should include strategies for addressing the specific security threats in each country. Global powers now recognise the importance of halting destruction of the rainforest to mitigate climate change. Foreign support should highlight the importance of local development and of incorporating the ancestral knowledge of Indigenous populations regarding sustainability and forest conservation, as well as supporting green economies.

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