Brazil’s crime ecosystem in the Amazon (commentary)
- Drawing on records between 2016 and 2021, the Igarapé Institute recently documented 369 federal police operations in Brazil’s nine legal Amazon states, categorizing the type of illegal activities involved.
- The research found that illicit activities, from drug trafficking to illegal timber extraction, often occur in tandem: “Such complex interactions point to the transnational dimensions of organized crime, raising difficult questions about cross-border cooperation, which is still ongoing.”
- Laura Waisbich, Melina Risso and Ilona Szabo of the Igarapé Institute examine the results and what they mean for efforts to tackle deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest.
- This post is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
The distance between kyiv and Itaituba is long, but the wild gold diggers of Brazil do not need a map. The war on Ukraine has sent international gold prices skyrocketing, and news in the Amazon Basin is spreading faster than quicksilver from creditors.
This town in the eastern Amazon state of Pará is a long-time hub for miners, their trade facilitators and a fleet of puddle jumpers who service the dozens of mines in gold digging the banks of the Tapajos River. Unsurprisingly, the garimpeiros – as the miners are called – are mobilizing. The same goes for the Brazilian authorities. Each rise in gold prices inevitably results in new attacks on the rainforest. If the miners keep their promise, according to our research at the Igarapé Institute, it will represent a new offensive in Brazil’s losing battle for the environment, reasonable development, the integrity of indigenous groups and the state of law.
Keeping the Amazon intact and its inhabitants safe is a job that is never done. Late last year, federal police raided an organized Amazon gold operation on a scale rarely seen. Even as world leaders and senior executives fretted in Glasgow over the growing climate crisis, Brazilian federal authorities uncovered a real-time environmental disaster: Hundreds of floating gold dredges covered the circumference of the Tapajos, so tightly packed that ‘they looked like a pontoon bridge.
Wielding high-pressure pumps, a small army of miners dredged the bottom of rivers in search of gold, while ransacking forests and dirtying watersheds. Police made arrests, seized equipment and set fire to what they could not remove. The bust cost the miners 14 million reais (about $2.8 million). But not for long.
On March 11, a group calling itself the Independent Upper Tapajós Miners blocked the BR-163 highway, an important agri-food road used to transport grain from Brazil’s ever-expanding agricultural belt to southern ports. The blockade, which blocked traffic for 30 kilometers, was described as retaliation for the police raid last year. It can also be a glimpse of the chaos to come.
In the Brasilia playbook, the real threat to the rainforest is an international conspiracy. “We have what no one else has: the Amazon rainforest,” President Jair Bolsonaro warned in a recent webcast. So how to ensure that Brazil remains green and sovereign? “Maintain armed forces capable of inhibiting possible foreign interference,” he added.
If only it were that simple. Drawing on records between 2016 and 2021, our team at the Igarapé Institute documented 369 federal police operations in Brazil’s nine legal Amazon states. The federal agents were supported by about 50 other state and local institutions, from regulatory agencies to prosecutors and police.
Our study shows that rogue diggers are just one of the reasons Brazilian security services have their hands full. That’s because the South American rainforest isn’t just a setting for the story of 21st environmental emergency of the century. It’s also an active crime scene.
Freelancers and retail opportunists aren’t the problem. While police operations targeted organized illegal deforestation and environmental degradation, Igarapé’s study showed that multiple task forces ran into a veritable underground economy of resource predators, illegal buyers, official facilitators and cross-border money movements, all of which thrive on razing the forest for quick bounty and dirty money.
Criminal economies vary by location and price. In Rondônia, in the western Amazon, more than 40% of operations have been triggered by illegal logging. Many others have targeted illegal gold and diamond mining and unauthorized clearcutting. Elsewhere, shady farming practices were linked to land grabbing and unauthorized deforestation. In most cases, the police found themselves tackling a combination of environmental crimes simultaneously. And illicit forest economies routinely rely on fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
And yet, while security forces have been diligent, their operations are often few in number and widely dispersed, meaning law enforcement is fighting an asymmetric battle against nimble and wealthy outlaws. The lack of official data on environmental crimes and the interlocking groups behind them keeps authorities in the dark.
To complicate matters, enforcement officials and bureaucrats have a reflex to treat environmental violations as petty crimes and their perpetrators as secondary threats, compared to more charismatic outlaws. such as drug dealers or smugglers. It would be a mistake. Our research shows that criminals who make short work of the forest also often carry guns, steal land, intimidate producers and local authorities, defraud permits and buy favours. Half of the police operations we tracked revealed organized crime (conspiracy), while weapons were discovered in 21% of illegal mining operations.
Tellingly, in Amazonian townships where deforestation is increasing, deadly violence exceeds the national homicide rate, the Brazilian Public Security Forum has found.
Igarapé’s research also draws attention to how networks of illicit interests – from drug trafficking to smuggled timber extraction – mingle and coalesce under the canopy. These complex interactions highlight the transnational dimensions of organized crime, raising difficult questions about cross-border cooperation, which is still ongoing.
Yet the nations of the Amazon may have no choice but to make common cause against an existential threat. Denigrating imperialists can make impulses quicken in Brasilia. Those with boots on the ground know that the credible threat to Brazilian sovereignty comes from a more familiar invasive species – a consortium of outlaws with no flag or doctrine.
Taken together, they represent a remarkably resilient criminal ecosystem, trained to exploit legal loopholes, law enforcement blind spots, and the indulgences of officials willing to look the other way for a price. With each violation, the country’s vaunted “green heritage” and its sovereignty are diminished.
If crime in the Amazon is an increasingly organized threat, the fight against these illegalities must be too – in Brazil and beyond.
Laura Waisbich is a senior researcher at the Igarapé Institute. Melina Risso is the Institute’s Director of Programs. Ilona Szabo is the president of the Igarape Institute. Igarapé researchers Terine Husek, Lycia Brasil and Mac Margolis as well as co-founder Robert Muggah also contributed to this piece.