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Governments are ramping up actions to fight environmental crime across the Amazon, but is it working? (commentary)

Recent deforestation for oil palm in the Amazon rainforest

Recent deforestation for oil palm in the Amazon rainforest

  • In 2023, Amazon deforestation rates declined after years of record-breaking losses, thanks to efforts led by Brazil and Colombia. However, these gains are fragile, and anti-deforestation efforts show signs of weakening, with persistent risks of a tipping point, argues Robert Muggah, Co-Founder of the Igarapé Institute.
  • Government measures focus on forest conservation, green development, and strengthening the rule of law but face challenges due to underfunding and limited municipal support. Public security forces are overwhelmed by environmental crimes like illegal mining and wildlife trafficking, exacerbating forest and biodiversity loss.
  • Environmental crime is gaining more attention from decision-makers, law enforcement, and civil society, leading to increased media coverage and public commitments. Despite this, interventions remain fragmented, with inconsistent political backing and funding, writes Muggah.
  • “Ultimately, Brazil and other countries in the Amazon Basin cannot reverse environmental crime through police and prosecutions alone,” he writes. “A comprehensive strategy that combines law enforcement with nature-based development opportunities is critical.” This post is a commentary, so the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

After more than a decade of record-breaking deforestation across the Amazon Basin, rates declined in 2023 compared to the previous year. Measures to curb deforestation were led by Brazil and Colombia, whose newly elected presidents publicly pledged to end deforestation by 2030. While these reductions provided temporary respite, there are signs that anti-deforestation efforts are faltering and the risks of a tipping point and catastrophic collapse persist. Flagship programs and projects to strengthen the rule of law in the Amazon, while generating short-term returns, are spread thin, lack adequate financing, and are not widely supported at the municipal level. Despite a proliferation of regional and national commitments, evidence of real impact is in short supply.

Primary forest loss across the Amazon Basin since 2002.
Primary forest loss across the Amazon Basin since 2002.

At the center of government-led efforts to reduce deforestation are measures to protect and conserve forests and nature; promote alternative “green” development; and strengthen the rule of law. Most of the energy is focused on pairing a (small) pipeline of projects with a (massive) reservoir of potential finance. Less attention and investment is devoted to sensitive public security matters which are widely treated as “outside” the climate and environment space. Even so, public security forces and environmental protection agencies across the Amazon are overwhelmed by an ecosystem of environmental crimes such as land grabbing, illegal mining, selective logging, wildlife trafficking, and illicit agriculture and ranching, all of which accelerate forest and biodiversity loss. Tremendous challenges are also associated with informal land tenure, pervasive corruption, and money laundering, all of which pose a threat to global climate and biodiversity goals.

The issue of environmental crime has started to generate more widespread and sustained attention from decision-makers, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, civil society groups, and even entrepreneurs and investors. Groups of investigative journalists have likewise stepped up reporting on the issue, including the shadowy criminal networks and complicit political and economic actors fueling soaring criminality. The result has been a marked uptick in media coverage – particularly amid deepening concern with the growing involvement of transnational drug trafficking cartels and other so-called “forest mafia” in the Amazon. Rising political attention is being accompanied with a slew of public commitments. While calls for asserting the rule of law in the Amazon are growing, what is emerging is a patchwork of disconnected interventions with uneven political backing and funding.

Ambitious regional declarations and minimal concrete action

At the regional level, there was a surge in declarations over the past few years with commitments to tackle various aspects of environmental crime and accelerate investment in non-extractive activities, including the bioeconomy. The Leticia Pact in 2019 committed seven countries in the Amazon to ramp up support for regional efforts such as the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) and tackle the drivers of illegal deforestation, including environmental crime. The Belém Declaration in 2023 made a similar pledge, albeit widening the number of signatories and with a concerted focus on tackling environmental crime and sustainable development.

Ad hoc regional coalitions have also formed to facilitate police and prosecutorial cooperation, though the results are patchy. For example, modest efforts such as the EU-funded El PAcCTO Initiative and the Jaguar Network have sought to expand cooperation to counter financial crimes, money laundering, and environmental crime between Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, among others, with support from Europol and Interpol. There are also signs of sporadic joint operations between countries that share borders, including a U.S.-backed bilateral intervention between Brazil and Colombia to target illegal gold mining.

Yet regional measures are routinely hampered by political tensions and mistrust across the neighborhood. There are well-known and long-standing ideological disagreements among certain sub-regional groups within the Amazon Basin. More recently, political spats led Peru to weaken its diplomatic ties with Bolivia and Colombia. These tensions impacted the outcomes of the Belém Declaration, including more ambitious targets to reduce deforestation, and continue to hinder the effectiveness of ACTO, including on issues of environmental crime.

Arguably the most important regional intervention to emerge is the creation of the Center for the International Police Cooperation in the Amazon, or CCPI-Amazon. It brings together the eight countries participating in ACTO, as well as partners from the US and EU and dozens of other countries. Launched in 2024 and based in Manaus, the CCPI seeks to “promote cooperation and exchange of information between national and international public security forces focusing mainly on combating environmental crimes and preserving biodiversity.” One of its early priorities is targeting illegal gold, including the use of new technologies to track radioisotopes right to specific mining sites.

Experts say the illegal gold trade has found ways to persist, with sales shifting away from DTVMs, the sole official buyers, to unauthorized buyers who leave no trace in the official records.
Experts say the illegal gold trade has found ways to persist, with sales shifting away from DTVMs, the sole official buyers, to unauthorized buyers who leave no trace in the official records. Image by IBAMA via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

A mosaic of national interventions with uneven coordination

Under the new Lula administration, Brazil has accelerated its announcements and interventions to address illegal deforestation and environmental crimes. Brazil is home to 60 percent of the entire Amazon Basin, some 5.2 million km²; the actions it takes are vital to protecting the world’s largest tropical forest. One of the president’s first measures on assuming office was to launch a series of interventions led by the military, federal and state police to dislodge tens of thousands of illegal gold miners from indigenous lands, including Yanomami territory. While initially successful at destroying hundreds of mining camps, dozens of aircraft, boats, and dredgers, and removing over 20,000 miners, many later returned. Critics observed that government-led efforts were episodic, allowing illegal aircraft, dredgers, and artisanal miners to return in force.

Nevertheless, Brazil has crafted robust national and state-level legislation to tackle some environmental crimes, though some laws and regulations are in need of upgrading. While the 1988 Constitution features provisions for “comprehensive” environmental protection, it is the Environmental Crimes Act (1998) that sets out the rules and penalties for specific environmental crimes such as illegal wildlife trade, poaching, deforestation, and pollution. More recently, Brazilian legislators have proposed legislation focused on disrupting illicit gold mining, such as Bill 3025, which proposes measures to curb such activities on indigenous land and conservation units.

Over the past year Brazil has likewise issued several ambitious national plans targeting aspects of environmental crime. The most well-known is the Ministry of Environment’s 2023-2027 Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm). Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security also launched the Amazon Security and Sovereignty Strategy (AMAS) in 2023. AMAS combines a series of decrees and protocols to expand military and police action across 34 separate bases spanning the region. And in 2024, the governance council of the National Strategy to Combat Corruption and Money Laundering (ENCCLA) announced new measures to target specific environmental crimes, including illegal logging and mining.

In order to strengthen institutional capacities to tackle the economic dimensions of environmental crime, Brazilian government agencies and non-governmental groups have also initiated a series of training initiatives. For example, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security (MJSP) recently hosted sessions for national and state public prosecutors, federal and state police, and other agencies to address the intersection of environmental and financial crimes. Additional training has been provided to national and state-level officials in Brazil and across the Amazon region by international and national partners such as UNODC and the Igarapé Institute, among others.

Another positive area of development relates to early detection and data management initiatives. The DETER system, created in 2004, generates high-resolution data on deforestation and degradation that is used by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and others. Likewise, Rede Brasil MAIS has expanded dramatically daily alerts and situational awareness across over 320 federal and state agencies across Brazil. Likewise, Projeto SireneJud compiles standardized data on “environmental actions” pursued by criminal justice institutions while PAMGIA, which is overseen by IBAMA in partnership with ICMBio, IBGE, and CENSIPAM, provides real-time data on environmental emergencies and fines. Meanwhile, civil society and private groups are providing a range of geospatial analytics, often in partnership with government bodies.

There are also multiple federal-led operations underway targeting several categories of environmental crime. Although a sizable share involve targeted interventions by the federal police and the armed forces, the majority are led by IBAMA, the national public security force, federal and state police, prosecutors, and other entities. For example, MJSP launched the so-called Integrated Force to Fight Organized Crime (FICCO) in 2023 to target drug and weapons trafficking and, to a lesser extent, illicit activities connected to environmental crime. Federal interventions such as Operação Rios Voadores are intended to address the confluence of money laundering and environmental crime. And the Target Gold (Ouro Alvo) program, launched in 2021, also seeks to link measures to reduce criminality across gold supply chains.

Nevertheless, most operational efforts to disrupt environmental crime are occurring at the state level. Literally hundreds of interventions have been carried out in the nine states of the Legal Amazon over the years, many of which extended over multiple presidential administrations. A number of these actions combine both federal and state assets. For example, Operação Curupira, which includes three fixed bases and operates in 15 municipalities of Pará, is credited with reducing deforestation by over 50 percent between 2022 and 2023. And the Base Fluvial Integrada de Antônio Lemo, also in Pará, reportedly reduced criminal activities by over 64 percent in the first five months following its launch in 2022.

Illegal mining detected with a drone in Perú in 2019. Image courtesy of Conservación Amazónica–ACCA.

Responses must be commensurate with the scale of the challenge

The scope, scale, and complexity of environmental crime across the Amazon Basin necessitate a commensurate response. There are signs that some of these measures may be generating positive impacts, at least in the short term. In addition to marked reductions in deforestation across Brazil, IBAMA claims a more than 100 percent increase in (reported) penalties related to environmental crime in 2023 compared to the 2019-2022 period. There are also some promising signals of reduced illegal deforestation and criminal violence in some states where focused operations have recently been undertaken. However, there is still limited systematic monitoring of outcomes and few independent evaluations of the costs and benefits of these strategies exist.

There are clearly grounds for improvement when it comes to strengthening the rule of law in the Amazon. For example, regional strategies and police operations need to be backed with both political support and resources. National legislation also urgently needs to be upgraded to reflect evolving international standards. National strategies between the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Justice and Public Security need better harmonization. Created in 2018 to coordinate prosecutors across the Legal Amazon and accelerate operations against environmental crimes, the Amazon Task Force (AGU) needs to be extended and strengthened so that it can achieve convictions. There is also a need to better understand and counter the efforts of some legislators at the federal, state, and municipal levels who are pushing back against measures to tackle environmental crime.

Ultimately, Brazil and other countries in the Amazon Basin cannot reverse environmental crime through police and prosecutions alone. A comprehensive strategy that combines law enforcement with nature-based development opportunities is critical. To be sure, greater investment in law enforcement, criminal justice, and the penal sector are essential. Incentives to encourage inter-agency collaboration are also vital, as are measures to counter corruption and mistrust.

Countering Brazil’s sky-high impunity rate is essential: in 2022, just one percent of environmental crime-related alerts resulted in a fine and less than three percent of those penalized ever paid fines. Alongside investment in improved surveillance systems, port oversight, and customs controls must be strategies to verify tenure, regularize informal labor, and address criminality across supply chains. An integrated and coordinated approach to the rule of law in the Amazon is foundational to reversing the drivers of illicit deforestation and realizing the promise of green growth.


See related coverage:

Collective effort monitors Amazon wildlife in heavily logged Brazil state

Despite drought, Amazon deforestation alerts hit five-year low

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