The links between illegal deforestation, transnational criminality, and armed group activity mean that deforestation needs to be treated as more than an environmental problem – it is also a security challenge, not only in conflict-affected settings but also regions suffering from high rates of violence and crime. Illegal deforestation tends to be considered as a standalone crime, disconnected from other criminal activity and without victims and only occurring in low-income countries, but this is increasingly being contradicted by a growing body of evidence.
In many parts of the world, including large rainforest areas, environmental crimes are increasingly carried out by organized criminal networks, including of transnational nature, operating with a clear division of labor and relying on cutting edge technologies and machinery that allow for large-scale operations. Many of these criminal networks are also directly linked to armed groups that actively destabilize fragile settings around the world. Looking at the Amazon Basin and the Congo River Basin, the case for a climate-security approach to illegal deforestation becomes urgent.
In the Amazon Basin, illegal deforestation is closely associated with invasions of public land, especially for purposes of cattle ranching, grains cultivation, and land speculation. Deforestation typically follows a sequence of activities, each entailing substantial investment, planning and organization. Enormous tracts of land are invaded; fire is set to the vegetation, and the remaining vegetation is cleared to make way for pasture or soybean fields. Investigations by Brazilian prosecutors have found that many of these invasions and subsequent activities are led not by local actors, but rather financed by individuals and groups in far-away cities like São Paulo and Curitiba.
In order to dampen local opposition to these activities, the criminal networks are usually armed, whether legally or illegally. In field operations by the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Natural Resources, IBAMA, investigators often find weapons or are met with fire. In some cases, the arms have been illegally obtained, whether in Brazil or across the border in Venezuela or Colombia. In parts of Brazil, these networks specialize in a particular type of environmental crime, such as illegal logging, but in some places, they have started operating across different modalities, including illegal gold mining — taking advantage of soaring prices in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both deforestation and the involvement of armed groups in it have become more common over the past two years due to a variety of factors. First, the government of Jair Bolsonaro has promoted the dismantling of federal institutions (including IBAMA) tasked with monitoring and protecting the forest. Second, he has also relaxed gun ownership laws and actively promoted a gun culture. And third, the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the Amazon region, weakening social services and making local populations like indigenous communities and Afro-descending groups, the quilombolas, more vulnerable to land invasions by illegal miners (garimpeiros), illegal loggers and associated armed groups. At the same time, commodity prices, including beef and soy, have increased, leading to a faster rate of illegal land invasions and deforestation. As a result, rural violence has skyrocketed in the region. In March 2021, for instance, illegal gold miners bearing automatic weapons shot Yanomani indigenous people defending their land near the Brazilian border with Venezuela. There is also growing evidence of ties between environmental crimes like illegal logging and drug trafficking groups based in the prison systems of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as well as their allied groups in the North of the country.
Conflict has been a dominant feature of the Congo River Basin since the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) independence in 1960. As a result of recurrent cycles of conflict, many communities moved increasingly into forested areas, resulting in large new areas of deforestation. Indeed, after the end of the civil war, large numbers of returnees also participated in deforestation, clearing land for new agricultural ventures.
The absence of viable state authority – and a lack of alternative legal means for survival – has meant that deforestation and illegal timber trade has become a staple in the Congolese economy. And it directly supports the operations of several armed groups in eastern DRC. For example, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have for decades used the illicit timber trade from North Kivu to support their activities, taking advantage of their transnational links to move timber out of the DRC. Many other armed groups likewise benefit from the illegal trade in timber, alongside the more recognized trade in minerals.
Other factors play an important role in driving illegal deforestation as well. Rapid population growth, urbanization, shifting agricultural practices, and the gradual spread of roads across eastern DRC have meant that the pressures on the Congolese forestries have increased. In fact, DRC’s economic growth and development opportunities for its citizens are directly tied to the country’s vast forests (an unsustainable activity in itself). This means that those actors who are able to control resources – including in many areas the timber trade – are seen as crucial governance actors. In those areas where armed groups control timber, charcoal, and other natural resources, they gain legitimacy, often at the expense of the central state.
A first step in addressing these interrelated challenges is to recognize that illegal deforestation is more than an environmental challenge. The deep links between armed group activity, illegal deforestation, and the broader sustainability issues facing regions like Brazil and the DRC point to the need to tackle these issues together, rather than separating deforestation as an environmental issue.
From a law enforcement perspective, it is necessary to better understand the links between environmental crimes and other types of criminal activity, from arms and drug trafficking to money laundering and corruption, and to structure investigations and responses accordingly. These networks are often well-financed, their activities are facilitated by white collar crime and corruption, and they fuel other crimes, from money laundering to fraud and tax evasion. Therefore, greater capacity is needed within relevant law enforcement agencies, as well as environmental monitoring agencies. However, care should be taken to avoid a narrowly militarized approach, since military forces and police are not trained or equipped to deal with environmental issues (and should therefore be limited to a support role, as in the case of field operations that required armed agents to accompany forest monitors).
At the international level, greater cooperation is needed to target the transnational dimensions of illegal deforestation and its associated crimes. Bilateral cooperation between police forces, prosecutors, and monitoring agencies can be complemented with more targeted efforts by global and regional arrangements like Interpol, Europol and Ameripol. In addition, more support is needed for local peacebuilding efforts that address the impacts and risks associated with environmental degradation, including the increased rates of violence in illegally deforested areas.
At the same time, stakeholders must be careful to balance the security understanding of illegal deforestation with the development and human rights needs of local populations. Without alternative sources of income, incentives for locals to engage in such activities will remain. Promoting a vision of sustainable development, based on the idea of the standing forest, ultimately is the basis on which efforts to curb and prevent illegal deforestation can take place.
As the links between the environment and security become clearer, our collective and national policy responses must keep pace. The linkage between deforestation and violent conflict should be one of the most crucial and urgent aspects of any prevention effort.