Peru’s 70 million hectares of Amazon rainforest are being razed at an alarming rate. According to a recent study by Brazilian think tank Instituto Igarapé in partnership with InSight Crime, which specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, the destruction of the forest has intensified in recent years due to criminal activities.
“In 2020, Peru reached the highest levels of deforestation in its history, with a total of 203,272 hectares destroyed, almost 40 percent more than in 2019,” the study, The Roots of Environmental Crime in the Peruvian Amazon, points out. Activities such as illegal logging, illicit gold mining, coca cultivation, wildlife trafficking, and land usurpation for cattle ranches and agricultural industries contribute to the destruction of the forest.
“Many illegal activities occurring in Peru are linked to environmental crimes located along the Amazon Basin,” Melina Risso, research director at the Igarapé Institute, told Diálogo. “Environmental crime is part of a broader regional economy.”
Most activities linked to environmental crime are concentrated in the departments of Loreto, Amazonas, San Martín in the north of the country; Ucayali and Madre de Dios in the east, on the border with Brazil; and in 10 other departments in the Amazon region. According to the study, cattle ranching and agricultural activities — usually facilitated by land trafficking — are the main drivers of deforestation.
“Land trafficking is the name Peruvian experts give to the acquisition of land, mainly for the production of agricultural commodities, through corrupt land titling mechanisms,” the research indicates. Criminal networks organize the occupation of land in the Amazon by farmers and native communities, providing them with legal security to access titles that they later sell to the highest bidder. “These networks rely heavily on corruption, including from officials of regional agricultural directorates,” the study adds.
Drug and timber trafficking
Other drivers of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon are narcotrafficking, timber trafficking, and illegal mining. Peru is the world’s second largest producer of coca. To make room for crops, producers cut down and burn forests in the departments of Ucayali, Loreto, Huánuco, and Pasco, as well as in the Amazon Trapezium (land that borders the Amazon River) on the border with Brazil and Colombia.
Other steps in the cocaine production process also contribute to deforestation. “Laboratories have sprung up around coca crops in the Amazon to turn the leaves into cocaine. And clandestine airstrips have been built to facilitate trafficking,” the study indicates.
In 2020, Peruvian authorities detected 46 clandestine airstrips in Ucayali. In September 2021, security expert Pedro Yaranga told InSight Crime that there could be more than 80 in that department alone. Satellite images from the Geobosques platform of Peru’s Ministry of Environment, which gathers relevant information on the environment and the forests, located the landing strips.
“The landing strips are between 40 and 70 meters wide and 600 to 1,500 meters long,” Marcial Pezo, head of the Regional Management of Forests and Wildlife of the Ucayali Regional Government, told the Mongabay news site.
Gold, drugs, wood, and animals
According to the Igarapé Institute, criminal networks have found that environmental crime is a highly lucrative business with low risks. The profits generated through environmental crime complement those obtained through other illicit economies, such as drug, human, and arms trafficking.
Peru, one the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world, offers ample opportunities for environmental crime. “Its extensive rainforest is home to about 10 percent of the planet’s flora species and thousands of animals, including exotic birds and jaguars,” the report indicates.
In addition, the Peruvian Amazon is full of gold deposits. “Peru is the largest producer of gold in Latin America, and record prices for the mineral have caused a boom in this activity, enriching criminal networks,” the study adds. “It is estimated that 28 percent of Peruvian gold is extracted illegally.”
The analysis complements information from EcoCrime Data, a data visualization platform developed by the Igarapé Institute to map environmental crime in the Amazon.
“As crime syndicates vie for natural resources […], conflicts have turned deadly, turning stretches of the rainforest into some of the deadliest homicide hotspots in Peru,” EcoCrime Data reports.
In Madre de Dios, the gold-rich department in the Amazon bordering Brazil and Bolivia, hired killers are settling scores and extorting traders, EcoCrime Data says.