Politics of the Amazon

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The criminal threat

In a speech in early June Brazil’s President Lula set out ambitious updates to his environmental policies, including a commitment to achieve zero deforestation by 2030 and a warning that the state could expropriate up to 50% of land involved in illicit activities. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the speech however was the president’s admission that criminal activity is deeply embedded in the Amazon region, remains difficult to control, and presents a major obstacle for any government trying to protect the rainforest. As part of a strategy paper called Plano de Segurança e Soberanía da Amazonia (Amazon Security and Sovereignty Plan) the president said his government would take steps to counteract the growing power of criminal cartels in the vast rainforest area. This would require tackling a “true criminal eco-system” including “drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, slave labour, contract killings and the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents”. Lula also paid tribute to British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, murdered a year earlier when investigating illegal fishing gangs in rivers within the Yanomani indigenous reserve. In January-February this year security forces evicted illegal gold miners operating on Yanomani lands

Criminal Groups in the Brazilian Amazon in 2021

The plan calls for the creation of a dedicated environmental operations unit within the National Public Security Force (police and military). It also announces the establishment of integrated land and river-bank security bases, and the creation of an international police cooperation centre to work against trans-Amazon crime with neighbouring countries.

Also proposed is the formation of integrated command-and-control centres with more intelligence sharing. There will be upgrades to river patrol boats and border posts, and the acquisition and modernisation of aerospace systems. The strategy requires increased use of satellite imagery to identify illegal logging, ranching, and mining operations. The government also proposes to increase its technological capacity by the creation of a system able to certify the origins of wood, agricultural products, and minerals, and to establish whether they are associated with illegal deforestation or mining activity.

A dramatic warning over security issues in the Brazilian Amazon was delivered earlier this year by Alexandre Saraiva, a former senior Federal Police officer who worked for a number of years in the region. He said that the rapid spread of organised crime groups could turn the Amazon into a vast conflict-stricken hinterland plagued by Colombian style criminal insurgents (armed groups motivated by a mix of ideological and criminal aspirations). Saraiva also suggested an alternative scenario where drug-trafficking mafias might spawn a decades-long conflict like the one currently in progress in the city of Rio de Janeiro where criminal groups repeatedly clash with police-backed vigilantes in poor shanty towns. “I experienced how the state lost control of public security in Rio de Janeiro” Saraiva said, adding: “And in the Amazon today – if nothing is done in terms of public security – we are facing a continent-sized Rio de Janeiro, with the aggravating factor of borders with major drug producers and an extraordinarily difficult jungle setting.” He suggested that criminal leaders could control territory in parts of the Amazon and develop their own private armies, in a manner similar to the Colombian insurgents. There would be “areas of conflagration” with groups trying to control logging and illegal gold mining, while victimising indigenous communities and taking advantage of the security forces’ major logistical difficulties across vast and isolated areas.

According to research by lobby group Brazilian Forum on Public Security FBSP, there were over 8,000 intentional homicides in Brazil’s nine Amazon region states in 2022, roughly 50% higher in relation to population than in the rest of Brazil. In Amazonas state the rate was 74% above the national average. The number of people killed in encounters with civil and military police in 2016-2021 rose by 71% in the Amazon, reaching roughly double the 35.1% rate in the rest of the country during the same period. The Amazon states also had much larger and more overcrowded prison populations than the rest of the country. Brazil’s two main criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which originated in São Paulo, and the Comando Vermelho (CV), from Rio de Janeiro, now have a presence throughout the nine Amazon states. There are at least 15 other regional crime groups in operation.

FBSP says the Amazon region now contains 10 of Brazil’s most violent municipalities, some of which are key mining and drug-smuggling hubs. Environment minister Marina Silva has expressed her concern over the “overlapping of multiple forms of criminality” in the region and high levels of violence which she describes as “a hallmark of the predatory occupation of the Amazon”. She has called for a stronger presence of the state throughout the region.

Another warning over growing security challenges in the Amazon came in December last year from Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso, who said the country is running the risk of losing control of the region. Barroso suggested that environmental experts, investors, and local governments should come together to agree plans for sustainable development for the benefit of the region’s 25m population. He said: “There is a real risk of losing the sovereignty of the Amazon not to any other country, but to organised crime.” Barroso added that the government would need to confront environmental crimes including illegal logging, mining, deforestation, land grabs, and the murder of “defenders of the forest”.  He wanted the “best minds in the world” to discuss alternative approaches such as developing a “bioeconomy” that would create livelihoods capable of preserving, rather than destroying the forest. 

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