South American nations have signed a landmark pact to protect the Amazon rainforest, but the agreement fails to offer comprehensive strategies for addressing environmental crime. 

Leaders of eight Amazon nations — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela — met in the Brazilian city of Belém on August 8. 

At the meeting organized by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the nations approved a declaration promising to increase multilateral efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest. 

The leaders agreed on measures to strengthen cooperation against illegal mining and logging, expand intelligence-sharing between security forces, and establish joint police and air traffic control centers to improve law enforcement capacity, among other actions. 

In a tweet, Lula called the meeting “unprecedented,” adding that “for the first time, we brought together leaders of the Amazon countries to think about cooperation for sustainable development.” 

Critics of the declaration, however, pointed out that it did not include a multilateral commitment to end deforestation, which was originally one of the goals of the conference. 

Lula and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro have recently made significant gains against environmental crimes. 

The Amazon is home to a range of criminal economies like illegal miningtimber trafficking, and drug production, which drive deforestation and environmental degradation. These activities are often run by powerful criminal groups such as Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) groups, as well as Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). 

Despite the presence of entrenched criminal groups devoted to environmental crimes, Lula and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro have recently made significant gains against environmental crimes. 

When Lula took office at the start of 2023, he began forcing out illegal miners operating in the resource-rich Yanomami territory near the country’s border with Venezuela. The operations were largely successful, with only 33 new mines detected in April and May 2023 compared to 538 in the same period a year earlier.  

This success was coupled with a six-year low in deforestation rates, a drastic improvement from sky-high deforestation under former President Jair Bolsonaro. In Colombia, Petro’s administration has also made gains against deforestation, citing 29% less deforestation in 2022 than in 2021. 

These successes bode well for Amazon conservation efforts going forward, according to Gustavo Faleiros, the director of environmental investigations at the Pulitzer Center. 

“This is certainly the most politically symbolic thing happening right now for the Amazon,” he told InSight Crime. “The two countries with the biggest portions of the Amazon working together, managing to reduce deforestation.” 

The Belém declaration sets an important regional precedent in the fight against environmental crimes and deforestation in the Amazon. But as environmental crime is increasingly linked to other criminal economies like drug trafficking, stronger action is needed.  

Recently, InSight Crime published an investigation exploring organized criminal dynamics in the tri-border regions of the Amazon.  

We found that state presence in the region is minimal, allowing criminals to easily pass between nations without restrictions. We also investigated the crucial role that Indigenous communities play in combatting environmental crimes, noting that future policy solutions must amplify Indigenous voices. 

The Belém agreement takes strides towards addressing both of these issues.  

Many drug trafficking groups operating in the Amazon have set up money laundering and corruption schemes.

It proposes joint law enforcement operations and intelligence-sharing on environmental crimes, helping authorities work across borders as criminals do. It also emphasizes the need to focus on Indigenous communities’ health, social and economic inclusion, and participation in the policy-making process. 

But the declaration failed to mention the increasing ways in which environmental crimes in the Amazon are intertwined with drug trafficking and powerful transnational organized crime groups. In the declaration’s 113 points, “drug trafficking” and “organized crime” were only mentioned once each. 

“Countries still see [armed groups] as an internal issue and not really connected with the overall agenda of conservation and reduction of emissions,” Faleiros told InSight Crime. “I think we missed an opportunity to be more intentional about that, because there is a connection.” 

Many drug trafficking groups operating in the Amazon have set up money laundering and corruption schemes. With this infrastructure in place, they have diversified into lucrative environmental crimes, like illegal mining and logging, taking advantage of the Amazon’s remoteness and its network of rivers to transport illegal goods. This has attracted powerful transnational groups such as the ex-FARC mafia, the ELN, and the PCC, which are exceedingly difficult to combat due to their high levels of organization, massive wealth, and presence across borders. 

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