Preventing climate change requires fighting environmental crime

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Credit: Marizilda Cruppe/ Rede Amazonia Sustentavel

By Ilona Szabo and Robert Muggah

The Amazon Basin is approaching an irreversible tipping point. Within a few years the world’s largest tropical forest could experience a ‘die-back’ that would not just affect South American countries, but deal a fatal blow to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It is no secret who is to blame. The principal culprits are the constellation of industries and individuals responsible for illegal deforestation. More than 90 percent of all deforestation is illicit, which means that tackling environmental crime is key to progress on climate action.

Brazil, home to 60 percent of the Basin’s tropical forests, is ground zero for rampant deforestation and degradation. There are signs the situation is worsening. The Brazilian National Institute of Space Studies (INPE) reported an 85 percent increase in deforestation in the Amazon between 2018 and 2019. While COVID-19 kept people distracted, deforestation spiked another 34 percent by the middle of 2020. Brazil is not the only Amazonian country experiencing surging fires and land clearances: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela are also on the frontlines.

The sheer scale of devastation of the Amazonian forest is literally breathtaking. Deforestation rates jumped 55 percent across the region in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. The equivalent of a football pitch is ruined every minute in Brazil. In Bolivia, fires in 2019 and 2020 led to an 80 percent greater reduction in tree cover than in any previous year on record. And in Colombia, its section of the Amazon has lost hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest to deforestation over the past decade. Virtually every scientist studying the Amazon believes there is no good reason to cut a single tree down — what is required is to make existing land more productive and to restore degraded land.

Governments across the region typically blame smallholder farmers involved in subsistence food production for the destruction of the Amazon. The reality is far more complex. Study after study shows that large agri-business and beef producing companies and their local suppliers are responsible for forest clearances. In Brazil, currently the world’s largest exporter of soy and beef, a review of 815,000 individual properties revealed that 45 percent of them fall foul of the national Forest Code. Ultimately, deforestation and degradation are perpetrated by a variety of actors, both legal and illegal, and connected to domestic and global supply chains.

Illegal deforestation and degradation occur in several ways. The most obvious is illegal land invasions followed by selective logging and the clearance of forest for commercial agriculture and ranching. Another modality involves both lawful and wildcat mining, mostly for gold, which has lasting effects on local ecosystems, biodiversity and human health. Forests can also be affected by wildlife trafficking, fueled by unrelenting demand around the world. Most governments, law enforcement organizations, and environmental groups treat these phenomena in isolation. And yet there is evidence that many of the underlying networks involved in these criminal activities are overlapping and connected.

In partnership with Interpol and InSight Crime and collaborating with groups such as ISA and MapBiomas, the Igarape Institute is tracking the networks driving environmental crime across the Amazon Basin. To disrupt these activities it is essential to expose the actors involved and the ways in which illegally sourced products are flooding global supply chains. Many of the criminal organizations involved in illegalities are themselves enabled by legitimate businesses alongside corrupt government officials, including police, notary clerks, customs officials, and politicians. The proceeds are creatively laundered, including by rolling ill-gotten gains into legitimate farmland or mixing illegally extracted gold with legal exports. Environmental criminals are tech savvy, deploying crypto currencies, drones and satellite technologies to evade the law.

There is negligible regional cooperation to eradicate environmental crime due in part to low levels of trust among governments in the region (and the fact that some officials benefit from illegal activities). Domestically, public agencies rarely coordinate effectively to locate, investigate, prosecute and penalize environmental crimes which explains sky-high impunity. Notwithstanding innovations such as the Amazon Task Force in Brazil, the political reluctance to boost forest conservation efforts has impeded the work of prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies. There is also inadequate collaboration between government bodies and non-governmental organizations, despite the growth of environmental activism across the region.

More positively, a number of private sector groups are beginning to step up where the public sector has failed to lead. Last year, over 250 global investors with $17.7 trillion in assets called for companies operating in the Amazon Basin to meet their commodity supply chain deforestation commitments. In June 2020, an additional 29 state financial institutions responsible for over $4 trillion in assets demanded more action from the Brazilian government. Past experience demonstrates that when there are transparent partnerships between public agencies and the private sector, meaningful action to reduce deforestation is possible. Where these pacts are weak, defection is more likely.

Private sector groups are also partnering with tech-proficient non-profit organizations to diminish environment crime. For example, Rabobank, the largest bank in the food and agribusiness sector and the second highest-ranked Forest 500 financial institution, now integrates the use of MapBiomas (cross-validating land titles, satellite data, and government embargoes) into its credit approval process. Large exporters Marfrig and Cofco recently began tracing products to the farm level, employing increasingly cheap tools such as remote sensing, AI, and blockchain in order to secure financing and access to foreign markets. Others like Global Witness, Imazon, MapBiomas, Global Forest Watch, and Trase are likewise stepping up their game.

While these efforts to crack down on environmental crime are positive signs, the world will need much more to pull the Amazon’s forests back from the brink.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho is a civic entrepreneur, co-founder and executive director of the Igarapé Institute — a leading think and do tank in the Global South, which generates pioneering research, new technologies, and policy on the intersections of security, climate and development issues. She is also the co-founder of the Agora Movement which aims to build a new vision and project for Brazil and a columnist at Folha de São Paulo. She was previously the executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and of a gun control campaign in Brazil. She earned a Master’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Uppsala in Sweden and is a public policy fellow at Columbia University in NY. In 2015, she was nominated as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, and in 2020 as one of the world’s top 50 thinkers for the Covid-19 age by Prospect Magazine

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