What do COP28, money laundering and the Amazon have in common?

For the first time, global law enforcers meet at UN climate talks to discuss how to turn the heat up on environmental criminals.

Organised crime gangs also launder money through land grabs, illegal mining, logging and other activities, endangering one of the world’s most critical and fragile ecosystems. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

From drug traffickers laundering money through dubious land purchases to miners illegally panning for gold, environmental crime is thriving in the Amazon and the question of what to do about it will be high on the agenda at the COP28 talks in Dubai.

For the first time, the global law enforcement community will gather at the UN climate conference, which starts on Thursday and runs until Dec. 12, to discuss how to combat the rise of illegal activities that threaten both people and planet.

The law enforcement meeting, dubbed “a historic collaboration”, is organised by the International Initiative of Law Enforcement for Climate (I2LEC), a joint initiative between the Ministry of Interior of the United Arab Emirates and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In recent years, the Amazon has become a drug-trafficking thoroughfare with illicit cargo easily passing through the vast, sparsely populated and thinly policed region.

Organised crime gangs also launder money through land grabs, illegal mining, logging and other activities, endangering one of the world’s most critical and fragile ecosystems.

Protecting the world’s largest rainforest is seen as crucial in the fight against climate change because it absorbs vast amounts of the fossil fuel emissions that drive global warming.

Here’s what you need to know about environmental crime in the Amazon and efforts to combat it:

How big a problem is organised crime in the Amazon?

Organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking and production, illegal logging and mining, and land grabbing are a growing problem in the Amazon and affect the eight countries and one French territory that span the Amazon basin.

A 2018 assessment, co-authored by Interpol, found that environmental crime was the world’s third most lucrative criminal business, surpassed only by drug trafficking and smuggling.

A 2023 UNODC report said “significant parts of the Amazon Basin are wracked by a complex ecosystem of drug crime (and) crime that affects the environment,” with illicit activities often happening near Indigenous groups living in the rainforest.

Criminal organisations include a myriad of different groups, from international drug cartels to local crime gangs.

Coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has been grown in Colombia’s rainforests since the 1990s and more recently in Peru and Bolivia.

Gold has been mined illegally in parts of the Amazon basin since the late 16th century but in recent decades small-scale illegal gold mining has skyrocketed as high prices triggered a gold rush.

How do crime groups launder money in the Amazon rainforest?

The damage being done to the rainforests in Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia has been described as “narco-deforestation“.

Traffickers use drug profits to buy forest land - sometimes illegally speculating or else legally buying forest - that is then turned into cattle pastures.

UNODC said drug traffickers also launder money through other agricultural activities, such as soy and palm oil production, and there is growing evidence that traffickers provide finance and logistics for illegal gold mining across the Amazon basin.

Until April this year, gold could be legally sold in Brazil using simple paper receipts based on the “good faith” of the seller, which made inserting illegally mined gold into the formal market relatively easy.

According to a report from the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think-tank, criminal organisations tend to diversify into environmental crime because it attracts less attention from authorities and carries “a fraction of the risk related to drug trafficking”.

How does this crime drive deforestation in the Amazon?

Clearing forest to make way for cattle pastures is a key driver of deforestation across the Amazon, particularly in Brazil, home to the largest share of the rainforest, as well as in Colombia and Bolivia.

Illegal gold mining operations also destroy forests, while the mercury used to separate the gold from grit pollutes rivers and contaminates soil and food.

Drug traffickers sometimes also clear trees to build small airstrips and roads to smuggle cocaine, cannabis and synthetic drugs across borders.

Are there other Latin American countries where money laundering is destroying forests?

Narco-deforestation is also a problem in parts of Central America where cocaine traffickers launder their profits by clearing and burning tropical forest to make way for agricultural land and cattle ranches, including in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Why is it so hard to combat money laundering in forests?

Persistent and high levels of corruption, limited state presence across large and remote forest areas, and a lack of coordination among Amazon countries all help money laundering and other drug-funded environmental crimes go unchecked.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has introduced a series of measures to combat organised crime in the Amazon, including plans for a new Federal Police unit focused on environmental crime.

In recent years, Brazil, Colombia and Peru have tried to set up multinational police patrols along their shared borders.

They have also ramped up efforts to prosecute environmental crimes and established police or army environmental protection forces to combat organised crime and illegal gold mining.

In August, at the relaunch of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), eight Amazon nations committed to set up an Amazon police cooperation centre in the Brazilian city of Manaus, aimed at exchanging information among countries.

But experts say more regional cooperation and coordinated policing efforts are needed to effectively go after the crime groups operating in the Amazon.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/

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