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Peru’s Amazon rainforest is threatened by an ecosystem of environment crime (commentary)

Río Huaypetue gold mine in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • While Brazil attracts more attention, deforestation is also substantial in the Peruvian Amazon, where forest clearing is on the rise.
  • Carolina Andrade and Robert Muggah of Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank, write that “the scale and breadth of the assault” currently underway in Peru’s rainforest is “unprecedented”. They chalk up much of the damage to “resource pirates”.
  • But while challenging, the situation isn’t without hope, argue Andrade and Muggah. “Resource pirates can be confronted,” they write. “Fostering closer cooperation between the many-layered and often competing oversight institutions could help focus government policy and action.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

From the Scarlet Macaw to the glass frog, Peru is a land of tropical splendors. At least half the country is blanketed by Amazon rainforest. It is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and home to an estimated 10 percent of the planet’s flora species. Lately, however, the Peruvian Amazon might be better known as a habitat under siege, where a flourishing ecosystem of criminal groups is busy sacking the forest and rivers for cash and power.

Environmental plunder in the Peruvian Amazon is as old as the New World, but the scale and breadth of the assault underway in its rainforests is unprecedented and one that Peru and its neighbors overlook at their own peril. That’s the takeaway of a new joint report based on a yearlong study by the investigative reporting portal InSight Crime and Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.

Drivers of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Source: InSightCrime and Igarape Institute

Deforestation rates reached all-time highs in 2020 and the country has lost an estimated 26,000 km2 over the past two decades. Part of the reason for this is that impunity for committing environmental crimes has sky-rocketed because the country is afflicted by chronic political crisis. The wider dangers of such neglect were made glaringly clear in early June when Brazilian indigenous rights advocate Bruno Araújo Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered while investigating a violent swath of the rainforest on the lawless Brazil – Peru border.

Pereira and Phillips reportedly ran afoul of a group of clandestine anglers who poach fish and game on putatively protected indigenous lands. Yet the “fish mafia” is just part of a sprawling understory of outlaws who have turned the untended triple border region joining Brazil, Peru and Colombia into a hothouse for violence and arguably one of the world’s biggest open-air marketplaces for smuggler’s fare, including cocaine, guns, timber and gold.

True, Latin American leaders have their hands full of emergencies, from the torpid post-pandemic economic recovery and stubbornly high homicide rates  to spiking food prices and deepening political turmoil. There’s little consensus in the region over how to tackle these existential threats, never mind how to make common cause against metastasizing environmental crime in the Amazon.

The stakes are high for Peruvian president Pedro Castillo who a year ago inherited a political earthquake (he is the fifth president in as many years), saw his approval ratings promptly crater, and has survived two impeachment votes, with a third in the making. The political disarray is an opportunity for bootleg miners, timber mafias, unscrupulous agribusiness and their financial handlers who fortify their illicit franchises in the hinterland as partisans quarrel.

At least since Francisco Pizarro plundered Incan treasure, Peru has been coveted for its bounteous Amazon gold. Today, fraud, corruption and illegal prospecting taint the region’s largest gold producer. Some 28% of Peru’s declared haul is “dirty gold,” mined under fake permits and exported illegally, InSight Crime and Igarapé Institute found.

Illegal gold mining chain in Peru. Source: InSight Crime and Igarape Institute

Wildcat miners are not the only worry. Although cattle ranching and Peruvian agribusiness (cocoa and palm oil farming) rarely attract media attention, these activities drive Amazon deforestation, much of it off-book when not outright illegal. So do timber mafias, who cut valued tropical hardwoods such cumala (Virola calophylla), tornillo (Cedrelinga catenaeformis), and lupuna (Chorisia integrifolia) to smuggle abroad. Land grabbing contaminates both of these production chains. Peru trails only outsized Brazil, a country eight times larger, in Amazon deforestation, having razed 2.6 million hectares of its rainforest (an area the size of El Salvador) since 2001.

None of these shadow economies could survive if not for the indulgence and complicity of local and national officials, police and environmental gatekeepers on the take. The problem in Peru is magnified by overstretched environmental inspectors and prosecutors, who are typically outmatched and outmaneuvered by moneyed criminal groups and their international enablers. Prosecutors trying to do the right thing routinely face violent intimidation by local cabals. Too often, front line environmental defenders and investigative journalists pay the ultimate price.

Much of Peru’s predatory impulse traces to former president and textbook populist Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000) who declared the resource rich Amazon frontier fair game for slash-and-burn herding and farming. Crime soon followed, from land trafficking to predatory palm oil plantations. Fujimori is gone, but critics warn that the sitting government’s recent land reform campaign will continue to mortgage conservation to unchecked rural development.

Peru’s decentralized administrative system has encouraged the pillage by transferring forest stewardship to local authorities, many of whom have proven unprepared or unwilling to stop the predation. The jurisdictional lacuna fueled corruption, allowing illegally harvested goods to contaminate legitimate markets. Illegal loggers operate unfettered thanks to the thriving business in false timber transport permits.

Even well-meaning enterprises can fall prey to pirates. Consider how demand for renewable energy drives predatory cutting of balsa wood, the durable, lightweight native species from which wind turbine blades are fashioned; legal and clandestine harvesters are cashing in on the balsa bonanza, while money launderers scrub the profits.

Despite their competitive advantage, resource pirates can be confronted. Fostering closer cooperation between the many-layered and often competing oversight institutions could help focus government policy and action. More than boots on the ground and showy police intervention, deploying digital technologies to track environmental crimes is critical. A two-year study in Peru’s Loreto department showed that the use of drones and GPS systems, and putting smartphones in the hands of indigenous communities proved effective in curbing illegal logging.

Amazon nations must also work in tandem to plug the porous borders, over which contraband, cash, drugs and armed groups move freely. Regional leaders might tap third parties like INTERPOL and revive the under-used Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization to bridge information gaps. Upgrading the Leticia Pact, a seven-nation accord to protect the Amazon which has fallen short, could also prove vital.

Ultimately, there is no confronting the assault on the rainforest with piecemeal measures. Criminals in the Amazon pay no mind to lines on a map. It’s time that the region’s political authorities followed their lead and backed their own pledges to disrupt environmental crime with real investment.

Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute. Carolina Andrade is a senior researcher at Igarapé.

Header image: Río Huaypetue gold mine in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.