Analysis

How Drugs Are Destroying the Amazon

In the world’s largest rainforest, cocaine and deforestation are increasingly linked.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
A farmer holding a large chainsaw steps across the severed trunk of a downed tree as he cuts trees to plant coca at a plantation in Colombia. Behind him are more trees in the Amazon rainforest.
A farmer holding a large chainsaw steps across the severed trunk of a downed tree as he cuts trees to plant coca at a plantation in Colombia. Behind him are more trees in the Amazon rainforest.
A farmer cuts down trees with a chainsaw to plant coca at a plantation in Colombia's Guaviare department on Dec. 6, 2021. The area is experiencing increasing environmental degradation due to illicit crops, intensive livestock farming, illegal mines, and drug trafficking. Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

The protection of the Amazon Basin is a perennial priority on the global diplomatic circuit. And rightly so: As most of us know by now, relentless deforestation and degradation of the world’s largest tropical forest threatens to irreversibly destroy one of the planet’s richest reservoirs of biodiversity and undercut the international climate agenda.

The protection of the Amazon Basin is a perennial priority on the global diplomatic circuit. And rightly so: As most of us know by now, relentless deforestation and degradation of the world’s largest tropical forest threatens to irreversibly destroy one of the planet’s richest reservoirs of biodiversity and undercut the international climate agenda.

Yet there’s another reason why the Amazon rainforest is a growing concern to global policymakers. Forest loss is being accelerated by a metastasis of organized crime, including a surge in cocaine production, trafficking, and consumption. In order to shore up efforts to slow deforestation and protect biodiversity, Brazil is gathering the leaders of the eight countries that share the Amazon Basin for a summit in the northern Brazilian city of Belém on Aug. 8 and 9.

The central goals of the summit are to end uncontrolled deforestation, promote the regeneration of degraded areas, and support the estimated 30 million people inhabiting the Amazon—not an easy circle to square, given the economic and population pressures to develop the basin and its extensive natural resources. Coordinated by Brazil and Colombia and informed by hundreds of consultations (some of which I participated in), a Belém declaration is in its final drafts and set to be formally adopted at the summit. The paper features an ambitious if sprawling agenda emphasizing security, development, and environmental protection across the roughly 2.7 million square miles of rainforest.

Given regional sensitivities and a spotty record of cross-border collaboration, the declaration will undoubtedly stress both neighborhood cooperation and the preservation of national sovereignty. Both Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Colombian President Gustavo Petro also hope to gather support for a political and financial upgrade of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, an intergovernmental body created in the late 1970s to encourage sustainable development across the region. An early draft of the declaration circulated in preparatory meetings urged governments, the private sector, and civil society to achieve well-known goals: expand the protection and participation of Indigenous peoples, increase safeguards for biodiversity, and scale up investments in a sustainable green bioeconomy.

While virtually all the goals advocated by the summit will be familiar to anyone who has read up on the Amazon, one theme is not usually associated with saving the basin: the fight against transnational crime. The crime under the Amazon’s canopy is increasingly difficult to ignore—not least because nearly all deforestation and degradation in the Amazon is estimated to be the result of illegal land and resource grabs, mainly involving logging, livestock grazing, agricultural production, and mining.

These criminal activities are supercharged by the increasingly sophisticated and powerful organizations that control the region’s production and trafficking of drugs. Put simply, drug traffickers are diversifying their portfolios into the nature crime business. As a result, large tracts of the Amazon Basin, especially in those countries controlling the largest share of the rainforest (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia—in that order), are wracked by an ecosystem of crime.

A newly released study by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights the complex and evolving relationships among drug, environmental, and other types of crime in the region. Although illegal activities impacting the environment are not always directly connected to powerful criminal groups, there are disturbing signs that the area is registering an increase in both organized and interpersonal crime, with far-reaching implications for regional, indeed global, climate and biodiversity commitments. (Full disclosure: I led the drafting of the chapter of the UNODC report on drugs, environmental crime, and convergent crime.)

Three Peruvian soldiers wearing fatigues and holding guns are framed by a plane as they take part in an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers in the northeastern Amazon jungle. Behind them is a green grassy scene with trees in the distance.
Three Peruvian soldiers wearing fatigues and holding guns are framed by a plane as they take part in an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers in the northeastern Amazon jungle. Behind them is a green grassy scene with trees in the distance.

Peruvian soldiers take part in an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers in the northeastern Amazon jungle near the town of Oxapampa on Oct. 31, 2019. Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images

With the exception of illegal logging and irregular land use, issues involving drug and other organized crime have typically been excluded from global and regional debates about protecting forests. Part of the reason for this is that they are considered too politically sensitive by governments in the Amazon Basin because of the alleged ties of government officials and politicians to organized crime. Another worry is that talk of detecting and disrupting the ecosystem of crime could inadvertently turn the environmental agenda into a security issue, distort developmental priorities, and open the door to foreign interference along the lines of the United States’ so-called war on drugs.

While neglected in climate and biodiversity protection negotiations, criminality has soared in the Amazon Basin. The region is registering a convergence of crime, from coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking to land grabbing, illegal logging, cattle laundering, and illicit mining, alongside fraud, extortion, and assassinations. Corruption acts as an accelerant of deforestation and degradation, precisely because some of those tasked with protecting the Amazon Basin—including high-level government officials, border agents, and licensing authorities—are themselves implicated in bribery and trading influence. There are a multitude of ways that trafficked commodities—from drugs, timber, and gold to soy, palm oil, and livestock—cross borders with the aid of fraudulent permits, elaborate money laundering schemes, and the complicity of public officials.

While treated separately in policy circles, drug-related crimes are fundamentally connected to deforestation and associated environmental crimes. For one, the production, processing, and trafficking of cocaine have both direct and indirect effects on forest cover and biodiversity loss, from logging and land clearance to make way for coca bushes to river pollution generated by the chemicals involved in cocaine production. To be sure, the extent to which coca cultivation and cocaine production contribute to deforestation and degradation varies from place to place. Significantly more destructive is the way in which proceeds from drug-related activities contribute to land acquisition and financial crimes. The region’s criminologists have a special name for the effects of this drug money reinvestment: narco-deforestation.

The UNODC report highlights the indirect relationships between drug markets and deforestation, as traffickers seek to reinvest proceeds into legal and illegal land purchases, forest clearance, the creation of pasture of cattle, and monocultures of soy, oil palms, and other crops. The recycling of profits into agricultural, ranching, and mining activities is typically accompanied with investment in irregular roads and clandestine airstrips, all of which undermines the integrity of forests and biodiversity. Indeed, there are more than 2,5000 private airstrips in the Brazilian Amazon alone, over half of which are believed to be illegal and more than a quarter of which are located on protected or Indigenous territories. Add to this the proliferation of makeshift river ports, which facilitate the expansion of both legal and illegal markets.

The expansion and diversification of major drug trafficking organizations into selective logging, ranching, land speculation, and wildlife smuggling have a host of negative environmental impacts and human costs in parts of the Amazon Basin. Drug factions are leveraging their regional and global transportation networks and supply chains to accelerate environmental crimes. Consider the case of drug traffickers actively exploiting timber trafficking routes, including disguising cocaine shipments in legal and illegal lumber exports.

An aerial view shows rows of plants in a coca field amid downed trees on the edge of an intact forest in the Guaviare department of Colombia.
An aerial view shows rows of plants in a coca field amid downed trees on the edge of an intact forest in the Guaviare department of Colombia.

An aerial view shows a coca field amid downed trees in Guaviare on Nov. 4, 2021. Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

In Colombia, for example, drug traffickers have subcontracted local timber companies that conceal drugs in the hulls of boats, transporting them to ports via Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. Brazilian federal police made 16 major seizures of cocaine concealed in wood shipments between 2017 and 2021 alone. Making matters worse, these activities are also frequently accompanied with disputes between rival gangs and local communities, resulting in a sharp increase in lethal and nonlethal violence, assassinations of environmental and human rights defenders, and illegal land seizures and occupations.

Organized crime groups are also moving into illicit gold mining, what some now call “narco-mining.” Already, a significant share of the gold mined and exported from the Amazon Basin is illegal. Owing to soaring gold prices since 2019, the region has experienced a veritable gold rush, with tens of thousands of artisanal miners—a euphemism for uncontrolled individual prospectors—operating alongside rivers and inland. The extensive use of mercury to separate gold from sediment is contaminating local ecosystems, poisoning food supplies, and hurting the Indigenous and riverine communities that depend on the Amazon and its tributaries for survival.

In Brazil, there are more than 320 illegal gold mines in the nine states that make up the country’s Legal Amazon. Major drug trafficking factions, including the Primeiro Comando da Capital, have infiltrated mining operations in Indigenous territories, running protection rackets, extorting taxes, controlling pits, and forging partnerships with gangs in neighboring Venezuela to sell contraband. Meanwhile, in the Colombian Amazon, illegal dredging for gold has exploded, involving ex-guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Gold is also the top export of Bolivia, with the mining region transecting national parks and reserves. And in Peru, gold mining is one of several ways that drug factions launder proceeds.

A sizable share of organized crime affecting the Amazon Basin is transnational, underlining the need for regional cooperation as proposed in the Belém declaration. Indeed, the region is crisscrossed with 8,700 miles of borders where criminal groups and crime congregate. Owing to weak law enforcement, high levels of impunity, and the lack of meaningful economic alternatives for local residents, frontier areas are hot spots where primary forest is cleared to make way for coca production, illegal logging, precious metal extraction, and cattle rearing, which in turn amplifies corruption, financial crimes, and violence.

Among the highest-risk areas is the region where the borders of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru converge, along the Caquetá-Japurá, Putumayo, and Amazon rivers. Other hot spots include the area where Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela come together. Not surprisingly, tri-border areas as well as their various transshipment corridors are notoriously crime-infested. Indeed, Amazon Basin municipalities are typically far more violent than the national average. In 2020, for example, Brazilian municipalities in the Legal Amazon reported the highest homicide rates in the country, a regional average of roughly 30 homicides per 100,000 compared with the national average of 24. The murder rate across northern Brazil, including the Legal Amazon, has increased more than 260 percent since 1980, which coincides with a long period of increased deforestation, expanded environmental crime, and growing drug trafficking.

Peruvian Defense Minister Walter Martos, wearing a helmet and red vest, is framed my news cameras and military officials as he speaks with the media during an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers. Behind him is an area of cleared dirt that transitions to grass and trees in the northeastern Amazon jungle near Oxapampa, Peru.
Peruvian Defense Minister Walter Martos, wearing a helmet and red vest, is framed my news cameras and military officials as he speaks with the media during an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers. Behind him is an area of cleared dirt that transitions to grass and trees in the northeastern Amazon jungle near Oxapampa, Peru.

Peruvian Defense Minister Walter Martos speaks with the media during an operation to blow up a makeshift landing strip used by drug smugglers in the northeastern Amazon jungle near Oxapampa on Oct. 31, 2019. Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images

One of the primary drivers of the recent surge in criminality in the Amazon is the production of, trade in, and fight against drugs. Not only is more coca being harvested from Amazon Basin municipalities than ever before, but more of it is being grown in the rainforest itself. Decades of forced eradication and fumigation programs in the highlands where coca production was once concentrated have displaced coca farmers into the forests. Increased coca bush cultivation and technological improvements in conversion processes have led to a production boom in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. The U.N. reported that these three countries’ coca production spiked by 35 percent between 2020 and 2021, reaching a new record.

What’s more, most of the world’s cocaine—more than 1,000 metric tons a year—transits through the Amazon Basin, departing from the region via some 900 drug routes to more than 65 transshipment and consumer countries. Official data reported to UNODC indicates that the frequency and volume of drug seizures across the Amazon Basin have been increasing over the past decade. In Colombia, total seizures reached 750 tons in 2021, while in Peru, cocaine interdictions rose from 32 tons in 2012 to nearly 47 tons in 2021. Brazilian seizures also climbed, from 20 tons in 2012 to around 100 tons in 2021.

A constellation of dozens of organized crime groups are expanding their activities from drugs into other crimes affecting the Amazon. Operating alongside transnational drug trafficking syndicates are mafia groups, irregular militias, and an array of political and economic backers who finance, protect, and profit from illegal activities. Also involved are brokers, fixers, and shipping agents, all of whom ensure that illicit commodities reach their destination. These criminal markets are deeply enmeshed with both formal and informal economies, including companies and individuals providing services for the extraction and processing of illegal goods—be they providers of fuel, food, mobility, labor, or sex work. Given the outsized role of cocaine and the abundance of exploitable natural resources, the Amazon Basin region has arguably the densest concentrations of organized crime groups on Earth. It is therefore folly to think that preservation of the Amazon can be dealt with separately from addressing crime.

The good news is that the countries participating in the Belém summit appear to be increasingly preoccupied with the ecosystem of crime in the Amazon Basin, which makes it more likely that they will find common ground on the issue. Brazil and Colombia recently announced their intention to establish multinational police command centers operating out of Manaus, Brazil, and Leticia, Colombia. And alongside Brazil’s newly created Program to Combat Deforestation in the Amazon, Brazilian decision-makers are also urging more action to crack down on land grabbing, illicit logging, wildcat mining, and related criminal activities. Initial results seem promising: Deforestation rates were down by 60 percent year-on-year last month and fell by 34 percent in the first six months of 2023.

Brazil’s federal police have set up a unit devoted exclusively to environmental crime and installed sophisticated remote sensing tools to track deforestation hot spots, developed in partnership with Planet, a U.S.-based satellite company. The effort is paying off, with the government reportedly taking in $1.9 billion from fines, seized goods, and confiscated assets. Together with Brazil’s environmental protection agency, federal and state police are also using a host of other satellite-based monitoring platforms connected to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. Among other benefits, these tools give investigators the ability to detect deforestation in real time.

An aerial photo shows two helicopters flying over an illegal mining camp in the Amazon rainforest in the Yanomami territory in Roraima state, Brazil.
An aerial photo shows two helicopters flying over an illegal mining camp in the Amazon rainforest in the Yanomami territory in Roraima state, Brazil.

Officers of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources fly helicopters over an illegal mining camp in an effort to combat Amazon deforestation in the Yanomami territory in Roraima state, Brazil, on Feb. 24. Alan Chaves/AFP via Getty Images

Colombia and Peru, too, have significantly ramped up efforts to deter and disrupt drug and environmental crime through police operations, specialized financial crimes units, environmental crime legislation, and special tribunals. For example, the Colombian defense ministry created an environmental protection force in 2022 to fight armed groups, protect biodiversity, and enforce other priorities. The Colombian attorney general established specialized units focusing on organized crime, although these are still not sufficiently focused on environmental crime. And in Peru, an unprecedented special tribunal was set up to prosecute environmental crime, although it has been criticized for lacking teeth. To be more effective, these and other institutional mechanisms must recognize how drug, environmental, and many other crimes are routinely interconnected.

In the medium to long term, combining policing and other rule of law measures with the provision of economic alternatives for local people is likely to generate the most impact. Also critical are strategies to improve traceability of commodities originating from the Amazon and to penalize the criminalization of supply chains. Strategies that create sustainable options for locals involved in coca cultivation, illegal logging and mining, or other illicit ventures—particularly younger people in poorer and Indigenous communities—are likely to generate better outcomes than narrow, punitive approaches.

Comprehensive interventions should focus on those areas, especially the border regions, that are most impacted by organized crime, particularly among Indigenous and minority communities. The most effective strategies will focus human and material resources on creating viable and sustainable economic alternatives, formalizing labor standards, mandating greater oversight of the extraction sector, and targeting predatory actors higher up the criminal food chain.

Given the inherently transnational nature of the crime challenges facing the Amazon Basin, regional and international cooperation is essential. If backed with adequate resources and properly enforced, the Belém declaration could incentivize much-needed collaboration. Rhetorical commitments, while necessary, are insufficient. The Amazon Basin states must also coordinate their anti-crime operations, find ways to share sensitive information, investigate criminal networks across jurisdictions, and prosecute crime leaders and their financial backers.

Greater safeguards are likewise urgently needed to protect environmental defenders who are on the front line protecting forests and the people living in them. Yet, so far, only three countries in the Amazon Basin—Colombia, Ecuador, and Guyana—have ratified the Escazú Agreement, a treaty designed to achieve precisely this. Domestically, making the Amazon safe for environmental work requires greater integration, joint monitoring, and sharing of information across ministries and departments concerned with law enforcement, justice, human rights, environmental issues, cities, and Indigenous affairs. Amazon Basin countries would do well to start by investigating and prosecuting the criminal actors targeting environmental, Indigenous, and human rights activists and journalists involved in safeguarding those on the front line fighting environmental destruction and organized crime.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

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