- The 2023 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime looks at the impact of organized crime on deforestation and pollution in the Amazon rainforest.
- While coca cultivation is often discussed as the main driver of deforestation connected to drug trafficking, the report argues that it has a minimal impact compared to some other peripheral activities.
- Drug trafficking is intimately connected to cattle ranching, illegal mining, wildlife trafficking and land grabbing, all of which have major environmental footprints in the Amazon.
The Amazon Rainforest is the largest in the world and a key player in regulating global water and carbon cycles. It also happens to be home to sophisticated criminal networks that make conservation efforts dangerous and complicated. Some of them target the rainforest specifically, trafficking timber and wildlife to far reaches of the planet. But others are more peripheral, like producing and trafficking drugs.
The traditional thinking has been that drug cartels impact the rainforest through the cultivation of coca — like any other crop producer, they’re clearing trees to make room for an agricultural commodity. That thinking, however, has become more sophisticated over recent years, giving way to the idea that drug trafficking can trickle down into other harmful activities.
Even this year’s global report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime made a point of focusing on the ways in which criminal activities that might have been previously overlooked have serious impacts on the environment. “The direct impact of coca cultivation on deforestation is minimal but indirectly it can act as a catalyst for deforestation,” the report said. It also suggests that, as some groups grow, they diversify into businesses that more directly rely on abusing natural resources.
It’s true that, in order to have a successful cocaine trafficking business, part of the forest needs to be cleared to make room for the cultivation of coca, which can then give way to a secondary timber trafficking business and the illegal occupation of land. But the coca also needs to be processed. That means a different part of the forest needs to be cleared for an informal facility where the coca is mixed with precursor chemicals.
In 2020, Colombia reported the use of 85 different fertilizers and 100 pesticides for coca cultivation and an average of 320 liters of gasoline for every 700 kilograms of coca that were processed, the UN report said. The chemicals and gasoline can seep into the soil and nearby rivers and streams. The forest also has to be cleared for clandestine airstrips and access roads that move those materials back and forth from the site.
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the world’s top three coca producers. But Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela also see their pieces of the Amazon used for transport of the drugs.
In all of these countries, drug trafficking groups find unique ways to cover up their operations. Cattle ranching, one of the main drivers of Amazon deforestation and climate change, is useful for hiding airstrips and facilities but also happens to be a convenient form of money laundering. Mining is also used for laundering money, the report said.
Drug operations tend to flourish in more remote areas that are difficult to access, especially protected areas and Indigenous territory. Almost half of all coca cultivation in Colombia took place in areas with a protected status in 2020, the UN report found. And in Brazil, Indigenous communities reported around 20% more homicidal violence between 2009-2019 than non-Indigenous areas, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.
When Indigenous communities suffer from drug-related violence, they often flee or succumb to exploitive work conditions for a gang or cartel. Conservation efforts take the hit. Indigenous groups have ancestral knowledge of local ecosystems important for conservation and keeping global temperatures below 1.5° Celsius, a key target for stopping climate change.
“The issues of climate change and biodiversity cannot be resolved without the real and effective participation of Indigenous peoples,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in an April speech. He added, “Urgent climate action involves stopping the persecution, homicide and criminalization of Indigenous brothers and sisters and their actions defending human rights and the rights of nature.”
As drug trafficking groups become more sophisticated, they look for ways to diversify their finances — often through illegal logging, wildlife trafficking and mining, the report said.
Mining contributes to deforestation not only because trees have to be cleared in order to extract the minerals but because access roads, airstrips and other infrastructure have to be built to accompany the operations.
The UN report argues that drug trafficking and mining are intimately linked. Seventy of the 101 municipalities in Colombia reporting the presence of illegal mines are also believed to have coca fields. In Brazil, the Red Command (known in Portuguese as Comando Vermelho), one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in the region, made its way into Peru and has been working in mining since around 2019, one study found.
“The expansion and diversification of drug trafficking organizations and other criminal groups into cattle ranching, selective logging, gold mining, real estate and trafficking in wildlife are directly and indirectly contributing to a host of negative environmental impacts,” the report said.
Banner image: A coca plantation in Cauca, Colombia. Photo courtesy of UNODC.
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