As organized crime advances in the Amazon basin in search of land to plant coca, riverine routes for narcotrafficking, and alluvial gold, the rainforest and the security of the region’s communities and defenders are threatened, international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Crisis Group said in a recent report.
The late 2023 report highlights that levels of violence in the Amazon exceed regional averages, contributing to alarming homicide statistics in Latin America and the Caribbean, with violence concentrated in rural areas and smaller cities.
Julia Cuadros, co-founding partner of the Peruvian NGO CooperAcción, which promotes human rights and environmental justice, expressed her concern to Diálogo on January 20. “The growing threat in the Amazon is of deep concern to us, as the region has become a fertile ground for illegal economic activities in our countries.”
Within the vast Amazon ecosystem that encompasses nine South American countries, the presence of armed groups is evident in 69.5 percent of border municipalities, according to data from news site Infoamazonia. In 145 of the 242 municipalities affected, these criminal groups compete for control and exploitation of the jungle’s wealth.
In these borders, characterized by their porosity and difficulty of control, armed groups, narcotraffickers, and illegal miners converge, invading and usurping protected areas and indigenous territories, Infoamazonia reported. Forest rangers who face threats are forced to abandon their jobs.
In 2022, this region witnessed 29 percent of the murders of environmental defenders worldwide, with Colombia and Brazil standing out as the most dangerous countries, Crisis Group reported. Victims also include state agents, jurists, and journalists.
Cuadros noted significant social and environmental impacts that, in addition to contributing to climate change, directly affect the livelihoods and survival of local communities. “The food security crisis is worsening, as the river is polluted, depleting fish stocks.”
Colombia’s Putumayo Amazon region has seen an alarming growth in criminal activity in recent years, with rival groups such as the Border Command and the Carolina Ramirez Front, dissident of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, benefiting from oil theft, illegal gold mining, and cocaine trafficking, Crisis Group indicated.
This surge in crime is reflected in a 70 percent increase in coca cultivation, reaching 48,000 hectares by 2022, predominantly along the border with Ecuador and Peru, Colombian media outlet La Silla Vacía reported. The expansion of cultivation has direct consequences in terms of forest loss: one hectare of coca for every hectare less of jungle.
The proximity to Ecuador facilitates the entry of chemical precursors and gasoline for cocaine production, making this border crossing a key narcotrafficking route. Despite the tightening of state control on Pacific routes to the United States in recent years, other routes have emerged, Crisis Group noted.
Putumayo is emerging as a key point for these groups seeking to expand operations into Ecuador and establish new routes to Europe via Brazil, the NGO added. “Organized crime, far from being limited to small groups, involves the coordination of local mafias run by international organizations,” Cuadros said.
The situation in the Amazon basin is becoming increasingly difficult, he added. Drug traffickers are stepping up their money laundering through illegal gold mining, infiltrating the legal supply chain through forged documents.
Madre de Dios
Madre de Dios in Peru, like other areas of the Amazon, is experiencing a surge in violence. Since 2017, the region boasts the highest homicide rate in Peru, Crisis Group reported. Local environmental defenders link the killings to the expansion of illegal mining that attracting criminals from various locations.
According to a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) study, informal and illegal gold mining in Peru constitutes between 22 and 28 percent of the country’s total production. In Madre de Dios, 90 percent of mining operations are carried out illegally or informally.
Cuadros noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised the costs of critical metals, such as gold. “This generates greater demand for gold ‘laundered and legalized’ by Russia and China, increasing pressure on gold mining and further complicating the situation in mining regions, such as Madre de Dios.”
In the last 30 years, almost 100,000 hectares of forest have been lost in Madre de Dios, according to USAID. In addition, Cuadros pointed out that the mapping of the Andean Amazon using satellite images reveals an alarming loss of forests, showing the total disappearance of forested areas in communities where they were just four years ago.
To counteract the threats in the Amazon basin, it is imperative to strengthen public institutions and foster community opinion committed to transparency, institutional strengthening, and respect for environmental and social laws, Cuadros said.
“Society must demand the protection of the Amazon basin, preventing regulatory flexibilization, and prohibiting mining exploitation in this fragile ecosystem. This challenge goes beyond the local and regional, becoming a global threat that impacts not only climate change, but the very survival of the planet,” he said.
In this context, Cuadros stressed that regional cooperation must emerge as an essential tool to strengthen these strategies. “An efficient articulation and an international concert, which promotes a unified narrative on organized crime threats and offers comprehensive solutions […], are imperative.”