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HomeOpinionEnvironmental crime and organized crime go together in the Amazon, says researcher

Environmental crime and organized crime go together in the Amazon, says researcher


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The alliances and overlaps between organized crime and environmental crimes are at the center of the studies of Aiala Colares, a professor and researcher at Uepa (State University of Pará). From 2019 to 2021, he coordinated a survey on the subject developed in partnership with the Brazilian Public Security Forum.

The work highlights the internalization of the factions in the North region and the arrival in territories of traditional communities.

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“Today we have in Pará, Amazonas and other states the presence of the Red Command, the First Command of the Capital [PCC] and the emergence of local and regional factions that have some kind of alliance with these groups from the Southeast”, says Colares, who is also a militant in the quilombola movement and the black movement.

As a result of these phenomena, the study, released in June as part of the Yearbook of the Brazilian Public Security Forum and released during COP27 (UN conference on climate change held in Egypt in November), also points to the unbridled increase in homicides in the Amazon .

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According to the last yearbook of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, in 2021, Brazil presented a 6% drop in violent deaths, a trend observed since 2018. The North region, however, was the only one where the index grew —an increase of 9%, reaching a rate of 33.3 cases per 100 thousand inhabitants, against 22.3 in the country as a whole.

The average lethal violence rate in the region is 40.8% higher than that seen in other Brazilian municipalities. This problem, says Colares, is a hallmark of cities with a high rate of deforestation and intensified land conflicts.

In December, in an interview with Reuters, the minister of the STF (Federal Supreme Court) Luís Roberto Barroso even said that Brazil runs the risk of losing sovereignty over the Amazon to organized crime.

In order to combat crime, states, such as Pará, have many limitations, Colares points out. In addition, for a more effective approach, the work needs the involvement of all the countries that comprise the Amazon.

“The fight against criminal activities, the strengthening of environmental measures and inspection and the defense of forest peoples are a strategy to preserve nature and guarantee the climate security of the planet”, he highlights.

At COP27, president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) stated that tackling environmental crimes in the Amazon will be among his priorities in the new government. Right at the beginning of the administration, the Directorate of the Amazon and Environment was created in the Federal Police, under the command of Humberto Freire.

Colares argues that the strategy should also include the creation of a specific secretariat to deal with the protection of environmental activists, in addition to the demarcation of the territories of traditional communities and the joint action of the bodies against illegalities.

What were the main results of the study “Cartographies of Violence in the Amazon Region”, coordinated by you and developed in partnership with the Brazilian Public Security Forum? The interiorization of organized crime factions in the North region. Today we have in Pará, Amazonas and other states the presence of the Comando Vermelho, the Primeiro Comando da Capital [PCC] and the emergence of local and regional factions that have some sort of alliance with these groups in the Southeast.

These factions reached indigenous and quilombola territories. According to a report by the organization Malungu [Coordenação das Associações das Comunidades Remanescentes de Quilombos do Pará], in the state of Pará alone, 39 quilombola communities denounced the presence of some type of criminal faction in their territories. This is very serious and worrying data.

Another note was the dynamics of environmental crimes totally related to the presence of organized crime factions. The relationship is direct, especially with regard to timber smuggling and illegal mining.

There is also the unbridled increase in violence in the Amazon region in areas that are in dispute.

How do criminal factions overlap with environmental crimes? Since the 1980s, the Amazon has been a transit area for cocaine of Peruvian, Bolivian and Colombian origin, heading to Europe and Africa. But Brazil is no longer just a transit area.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil became the second largest consumer market for cocaine in the world, second only to the United States. And what is the relationship between this and environmental crimes? In recent years, there has also been weakness in institutional policies aimed at protecting the environment, combating timber smuggling and, at the same time, encouraging the expansion of illegal mining in indigenous lands.

In the same ports where smuggled manganese is found, there is illicitly exploited gold and cocaine. They are the same routes. The Port of Vila do Conde [em Barcarena, no Pará] it is the great node of a network that connects these various types of crime.

It is also possible to identify the presence of drug trafficking factions along with groups linked to illegal mining in municipalities [do Pará] such as Itaituba, Jacareacanga, Altamira. Or, in the state of Amazonas, criminals illegally exploiting timber using the same route and the same ports of passage for drugs.

There are networks that connect with international markets, right? Perfect. When we observe where this material is going, we find data from the Federal Police, the Police of the state of Pará and inspection bodies that seize this merchandise and find Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg as its destination.

We also discovered a route that leaves here in Pará and goes towards the United States, crossing all of Central America, for wood smuggling in this case.

How does the expansion of these criminal factions affect indigenous territories and traditional communities? There is great social vulnerability in these communities. There is difficulty in accessing public health, public education, public services in general. They are distant, isolated communities.

They become extremely vulnerable because public safety is not always present. In some cases, there is the co-option of young quilombola, indigenous and riverside people to be part of these networks.

It is an issue that has to be observed carefully, in order to understand the forms of enticement that are used.

How does research unfold now? We have to understand the transnationalization of these various types of crimes, and how foreign agents influence this type of crime. This is a challenge because we will end up finding agents in countries that claim to fight environmental crimes.

Another point is to understand this increase in the lethality of crimes. We want to qualify this type of violence in order to understand what are the motivating factors of this violence. If they are areas of mining, land grabbing, illegal logging, expansion of agribusiness, disputes between organized crime factions…

We want to guide the creation of public policies, because while the national average [de homicídios] decreased, in the Amazon it increased.

And, last but not least, we want to better understand the presence of illegal activities in the region’s mines. I’m not just talking about the issue of gold, but also the smuggled manganese that leaves here in Pará and the smuggled cassiterite that leaves, for example, Roraima.

And how are the Amazonian cities doing at this time when crime is expressed more in rural areas? There is a departure of members from the capitals — both Belém and Manaus are examples — towards these areas of mining, of land grabbing. They flee from police investigations or else go to articulate other activities and small cells appear that begin to organize themselves.

Your state, Pará, maintains high rates of deforestation, is a champion of violence in the countryside, has the highest number of illegal mining in the region, as you yourself wrote in an article. What have been the responses of the state government to environmental problems and the activities of criminal factions? With regard to public safety, the rates of violence in the metropolitan region [de Belém] significantly decreased. All data point to this, including those from the Public Security Atlas of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, but it is necessary to try to see some elements that may even contribute to this reduction, such as the hegemony of a drug trafficking faction that establishes certain behaviors, preventing thefts and robberies.

I still cannot see an effective policy on the part of the state in relation to combating violence in the countryside. Why? Because it needs to implement a rural settlement policy that we did not implement, definitive titling of quilombola lands that are in areas of the state, not the Union, and an effective policy to combat environmental crimes — I also do not see this effectiveness in this service.

In your opinion, what would be the most urgent measures to increase the security of environmental activists in the Amazon? It would be necessary to create an effective protection policy, a specific secretariat to deal with the protection of environmental activists and community leaders in the region.

These leaders are often unprotected because the state does not provide them with a work structure and even ends up criminalizing these activists, as happened recently with Bruno [Pereira, indigenista assassinado em junho], for example. The federal government itself exonerated him from office and neglected the report he had produced pointing out a series of problems in the Javari Valley.

It is necessary to place the environmental issue within the public security agenda. Today it is as if the crime of drug trafficking were one thing and illegal logging were another. No, we have to connect these activities and understand that everything is part of a type of organization that is criminal.

Would you say that this topic was more debated in the last elections? I already imagined that the Amazon would be one of the main themes in the candidates’ presidential campaigns, but there is a need for commitment.

The current government has no commitment to the region. Some others say that they need to create a strategic plan of action for the Amazon. But how to draw up an action plan that can reduce deforestation and fires, punish those responsible and protect the peoples of the forest?

Another issue is to understand that the Amazon is not just Brazilian, it crosses the border and reaches the Guianas, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and are countries that also face these same problems. So it is necessary to resume this inter-institutional cooperation and jointly think about strategies to combat crime.

What would be your main suggestions for the new government? The first is to think about development strategies from the inside out. We will not be able to eliminate agribusiness or mining, but we must consider that they should not expand into indigenous or quilombola territories.

It is necessary to consolidate the demarcation of these traditional territories and involve riverside people, quilombolas and indigenous people to think about development alternatives based on biodiversity. And create an effective environmental protection policy, with Ibama, ICMBio, Funai, Federal Police and other bodies and powers acting jointly, with integrated mechanisms.


Aiala Colares, 44

Geographer with a doctorate in socio-environmental development sciences from the Federal University of Pará. Born in the quilombo of Menino Jesus de Petimandeua, in Inhangapi (PA), he is a member of the quilombola and black movement. He is a professor and researcher at the University of the State of Pará, coordinator of the Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies at the institution and member of the Brazilian Public Security Forum.

The Planeta em Transe project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.

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