The Amazon region is going through its worst drought in more than a century. In Brazil, the Rio Negro, one of the region’s great rivers, has reached a depth of 12.89 meters, the lowest mark since measurements began in 1902. The Amazon rivers and tributaries, through which food, medicine, and other goods are transported, are unnavigable. Fishing activities are collapsing and there is a shortage of drinking water. The ongoing drought combined with the effects of climate change and El Niño has caused temperatures in Lake Tefé, in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, to rise and led to the death of more than 150 dolphins in late September, according to the authorities.
The drought is impacting all the countries that share the Amazon — eight nations share the territory — yet the Brazilian Amazon, which corresponds to some 60 percent of the rainforest, is among the most affected by the El Niño phenomenon at the moment. The phenomenon is one of the usual causes of this period of drought; however, experts point out that illegal activities and the actions of transnational criminal organizations exacerbate and accelerate this process, leading to deforestation, pollution, forest fires, and contamination of rivers and springs.
“The model of the region’s economic structure makes a big contribution: the expansion of fires, cattle ranching, the timber sector, mining, agribusiness, all of this leads to an increase in deforestation, pollution of rivers, the drying up of some rivers, and it’s something that, all in all, promotes the expansion of criminal activities, highlighting the role of timber smuggling, land grabbing, because we also have to analyze that the issue of organized crime has to be interpreted beyond narcotrafficking,” Aiala Colares, a professor and researcher at the State University of Pará and one of the coordinators of the Brazilian Public Security Forum’s Cartography of Violence in the Amazon Region, told Diálogo.
For the researcher, environmental problems in the Amazon have reached a very complex stage, due to the expansion of organized crime and a combination of various illegal activities that complement legal activities. “The advance of environmental crimes related to the advance of organized crime is something that has been building for a long time and we are now at a time when these socio-environmental conflicts are exploding […]. The Amazon region today is at the center of disputes involving organized crime, whether it’s money laundering, cocaine being imported from the Andean countries, illegal fishing, manganese and cassiterite or other types of ore being smuggled to Europe, or illegal logging. And now we can highlight the land market linked to the issue of land grabbing,” Colares said.
The drought has affected the lives of almost 700,000 people in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon, especially in the states of Acre, Amazonas, and Roraima. Authorities decreed a state of emergency in several cities. The Brazilian government has set up a task force to help the affected population and announced the allocation of more than $132 million for the region. The money is being distributed, among others, to the Ministry of Health, which sent technicians specialized in public health and environmental surveillance and provided essential medicines and supplies; to the Ministry of Ports and Airports, for dredging rivers to improve navigability; to the Amazon Fund; and the Ministry of the Environment. The Brazilian Armed Forces have been on the ground since October with some 380 military personnel from the Navy, Army, and Air Force.
“The soldiers have transported 10,800 food baskets and 1,290 cartons of drinking water to municipalities of Alvarães, Tabatinga, Benjamin Constant, Amaturá, Santo Antônio do Iça, and Tonantins, in the state of Amazonas. They also carried out 13,700 actions, including medical and dental procedures, exams, and the distribution of medicines,” the Brazilian Ministry of Defense told Diálogo in a statement. “A large aircraft, a hospital ship, two helicopters, and two vessels were used for the operations. To date, there has been an accumulated distance of 2,437 kilometers in river transport and around 85 hours of flight time in Army and Air Force aircraft.”
For Colares, the answer to environmental problems in the Amazon is quite complex and “requires the efforts of all the political players to build a path that can be somewhat productive, in terms of sustainability, and positive, in terms of inclusion and building a development model that can bring about a culture of good living.”
As for the fight against organized crime, Colares believes that internally it would require an interinstitutional policy, attaching various projects integrating police forces and consolidating a federative pact. Colares says that it is essential to work together with the other Amazonian countries, “getting closer and working together with neighboring countries, which also share Brazil’s problems, the Amazonian countries, mainly Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia, and at the same time creating a set of strategic actions based on public policies that strengthen the social and political structures of vulnerable regions that are affected by the advance of organized crime,” the researcher concluded.