The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, a territory equivalent to the size of the European Union with unmatchable biodiversity and beauty, which is also crisscrossed by strategic international drug trafficking routes through which even narco-submarines circulate. Organized crime, which has been expanding for years, is already present in a quarter of the Amazonian municipalities, and violence has increased more in the region than in the rest of Brazil. The growing presence of criminal groups in the Amazon since 2016 and the effects of this pose a threat to the fight against climate change, warns a report released by the NGO Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (FBSP) on the eve of COP28, the United Nations global summit on climate change in Dubai. Its authors argue that without addressing the issue of public safety, it will be impossible to take firm steps to protect the valuable ecosystem.
Renato Sérgio de Lima, president of FBSP, explains on the phone that “it is not possible to talk about meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, about changing the energy matrix [in Brazil], about reducing deforestation, about guaranteeing rights, without talking about violence in the Amazon.” The future of tropical forests like this one, which expands through Brazil and eight other countries, is vital because they play a crucial role in regulating the planetary temperature and thus mitigating global warming.
This NGO wants to take advantage of the climate summit in Dubai to alert Brazilian authorities and the wider world of the urgency of incorporating the growing power that criminal groups exercise in the territory and among the populations of the Amazon into their discussions on how to protect the forest, its inhabitants, and its biodiversity.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has traveled to COP28 accompanied by a dozen ministers, including the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, with whom he formed an environmental policy partnership during his previous term in office. Lula’s Brazil has managed to leave the image of environmental villainy that accompanied Jair Bolsonaro’s years in power behind. The government intends to highlight its prioritization of environmental issues, its achievements in terms of deforestation — which fell by 22% in the Amazon, according to the first annual balance under Lula’s mandate — and to propose an international mechanism for wealthy countries to contribute to keeping the rainforests intact.
Violence in the Amazon is nothing new. The exploitation of its natural resources is a centuries-old practice. The weak presence of the state in a territory that occupies half of Brazil is not new either. What does represent a change is that since 2016, criminal groups dedicated to drug trafficking have been expanding their reach and taking control of territories. “Factions are already beginning to organize people’s lives, as they do for example in the periphery of São Paulo or in areas of Rio,” warns de Lima.
There are 22 criminal groups operating in the Amazon region, according to the FBSP report: Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command dominates the Amazonian interior, while its rival, the First Capital Command, is focused on border expansion into neighboring countries. Alongside these nationwide gangs, there are some twenty local factions. Alliances and conflicts are multiple and shifting. The director of the Forum maintains that the Amazon presents “a scenario that is a time bomb ready to explode.”
The vast territory is strategic for the transit of cocaine from the producing countries to its destination, be it Europe or Asia, but it is also fertile ground for money-laundering due, for example, to the last gold rush a couple of years ago.
The expansion of organized crime is one of the factors that explains the increase in violence in the nine Brazilian states that make up the Amazon. The FBSP report details that the murder rate is 34 per 100,000 inhabitants — 45% higher than the Brazilian average — while 15 municipalities exceed 80 murders per 100,000 people. Violent deaths of indigenous people exceed the national average by 26%, femicides by 30%, and cocaine seizures have doubled in four years. On the environmental level, crimes including the illegal timber trade, deforestation, arson, and land usurpation are also on the rise. “If we do not fight organized crime, it can present a threat to sovereignty,” says de Lima.
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