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Environmental Crime and Organised Crime Go Hand in Hand in the Amazon, Says Researcher

Aiala Colares, coordinator of a study on violence in the North of Brazil, argues that public security and forest conservation should share the same agenda

Cristiane Fontes

The alliances and overlaps between organised crime and environmental crime are at the core of the studies developed by Aiala Colares, a professor and researcher at the State University of Pará (UEPA). Between 2019 and 2021, he coordinated a study on this topic in partnership with the Brazilian Public Security Forum.

His work highlights criminal groups' expansion into the North region, including traditional communities' territories.

‘Both Comando Vermelho [Red Command] and Primeiro Comando da Capital [First Capital Command, or PCC] have operations in the states of Pará, Amazonas, and others in the region. We have also identified the emergence of local and regional factions with some sort of link with these groups from the Southeast', says Colares, who is also a militant in the Quilombola and Black movement.

Colares’s study was released in June as part of the Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, and was further publicised and discussed during COP27 (UN Climate Change Conference held in Egypt in November). It links this [expanded presence of criminal organisations] to the unbridled increase in homicide rates in the Amazon.

According to the latest Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, Brazil saw a 6% drop in violent deaths in 2021, a trend observed since 2018. The North region, however, was the only one where the rate grew — a 9% increase, reaching a rate of 33.3 cases per 100,000 people (compared to 22.3 for the country as a whole).

The average lethal violence rate in the region is 40.8% — higher than in the rest of Brazil. This problem, says Colares, is more present in cities with high deforestation rates and intensified land conflicts.

Earlier this month, in an interview with Reuters, Federal Supreme Court (STF) justice Luís Roberto Barroso actually claimed that Brazil runs the risk of losing sovereignty over the Amazon to organised crime.

Brazilian states, such as Pará, face many limitations in fighting crime, Colares points out. In addition, for a more effective approach, all Amazon countries have to be involved.

"The fight against crime, the strengthening of law enforcement and environmental action, and the protection of forest peoples are part of a strategy to preserve nature and guarantee the climate security of our planet", he claims.

At COP27, president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers Party, or PT) stated that tackling environmental crime in the Amazon will be one of the priorities of his new government. Colares argues that a successful strategy should include the creation of a specific department focused on the protection of environmental activists, the demarcation of traditional communities' territories, and concerted action against illegalities.

Homem com braços cruzados
Aiala Colares. He is currently a professor and researcher at the State University of Pará (UEPA), the coordinator of the UEPA Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies, and a member of the Brazilian Public Security Forum - Divulgação

What are the key findings in 'Cartographies of Violence in the Amazon Region', the study coordinated by you and developed in partnership with the Brazilian Public Security Forum? The spread of organised crime factions in the North region. Both Comando Vermelho [Red Command] and Primeiro Comando da Capital [First Capital Command, or PCC] have operations in the states of Pará, Amazonas, and others in the region. We have also identified the emergence of local and regional factions with some sort of link with these groups from the Southeast.

These factions have reached Indigenous and Quilombola territories. According to a report by Malungu [Pará Network of Remaining Quilombo Communities], in the state of Pará alone, 39 Quilombola communities have denounced the presence of some criminal faction in their land. This is very serious and worrying.

Another finding was the close link between the dynamics of environmental crime and the presence of organised crime factions. Both are directly co-related, especially with regard to timber smuggling and illegal mining.

There is also an unbridled increase in violence in disputed areas in the Amazon.

How do criminal factions overlap with environmental crime? Since the 1980s, the Amazon region has served as a corridor for Peruvian, Bolivian, and Colombian cocaine — en route to Europe and Africa. However, Brazil is no longer just a transit country.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil became the second largest consumer cocaine market in the world, second only to the United States. But how is that related to environmental crime? In recent years, there has been a weakness in institutional policies aimed at protecting the environment and fighting timber smuggling; at the same time, there have been incentives to expand illegal mining in Indigenous lands.

The same ports that smuggle manganese are also used to ship illegally mined gold and cocaine. The routes are the same. The Vila do Conde port [in the municipality of Barcarena, state of Pará] is a major hub in a network that connects all these different crimes.

We also find drug trafficking factions cooperating with groups engaged in illegal mining in several places [in Pará], such as Itaituba, Jacareacanga, and Altamira. In the state of Amazonas, criminals smuggle timber using the same route and the same ports used for drugs.

Some networks are connected with international markets, right? Exactly. Our data come from the Federal Police, the Pará State Police, and other enforcement agencies that have seized goods in the area. The key destinations are Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg.

We also discovered a route used to ship smuggled wood from Pará to the United States, crossing all of Central America.

How does the expansion of these criminal factions affect Indigenous territories and traditional communities? These communities suffer from major social vulnerabilities. Their access to public health, public education, and public services in general is very limited, as they are very remote and isolated.

Therefore, they become extremely vulnerable — in the absence of public security. In some cases, Quilombola, Indigenous, and riverine youth are co-opted to join these [criminal] networks.

It is an issue that has to be observed carefully, if we want to understand the forms of enticement that are used.

What are the next steps in your study now? We have to understand the transnational aspects of these different types of crime, including the role of foreign agents. This is a challenge because we will eventually identify agents in countries that claim to be fighting environmental crime.

Another point is to understand this growing crime lethality. We want to qualify this type of violence in order to understand its main drivers: mining, land grabbing, illegal logging, expanding agribusiness, disputes between organised crime factions…

We would like to be able to influence policy: while the national average [homicide] rate has gone down, it has increased in the Amazon.

Last but not least, we want to develop a better understanding of the links between crime and mining in the region. I'm not just talking about gold, but also manganese smuggled from Pará, or cassiterite smuggled from Roraima.

How are Amazon cities and towns doing at this time, when crime seems to have become more present in rural areas? These groups are flowing from state capitals — such as Belém and Manaus — towards mining and land grabbing hotspots. They do that either to flee law enforcement, or to engage in other activities. As a result, new smaller cells appear in different places.

Your state, Pará, maintains high rates of deforestation, leads the statistics of violence in the countryside, and has the largest areas of illegal mining in the region, as you yourself wrote in an article. How has the state government been responding to environmental issues and the presence of criminal factions? With regard to public security, the rates of violence in the metropolitan region [of Belém] have decreased significantly. All data point towards that, including those from the Public Security Atlas published by the Brazilian Public Security Forum. However, we must try to understand the elements that may have contributed to this reduction, including the hegemony of a single drug trafficking faction that establishes certain behaviours, thus preventing thefts and robberies.

I still cannot see an effective state-level policy aimed at fighting violence in the countryside. Why? Because Pará has not yet implemented a proper rural settlement policy, including the definitive titling of Quilombola lands in state (not federal) areas, or an effective policy against environmental crimes. We also need more effectiveness in this area.

In your opinion, what are the most urgent measures to ensure the security of environmental activists in the Amazon? It would be necessary to create an effective protection policy, a specific department to focus on protecting environmental activists and community leaders in the region.

These leaders are often unprotected because the state does not support their work, and may even end up criminalising them, as we have recently seen with Bruno [Pereira, an indigenist murdered in June], for example. The federal government had exonerated Bruno from office, and ignored a report he had produced on a series of problems he identified in the Javari Valley.

We must include environmental issues in our public security agenda. Today, it is as if drug trafficking was one thing, and illegal logging was another. But this is not true — we have to link these activities and understand that everything is part of a type of organisation that is criminal.

Would you say that this topic attracted more attention during our recent elections? I had no doubt that the Amazon would play an important role in the presidential campaign, but we need stronger commitments.

The current government shows no commitment toward the region. Others say that we need to have a strategic action plan for the Amazon. But how can we draw up an action plan to reduce deforestation, control forest fires, punish those responsible for it, and protect the peoples of the forest?

We also need to understand that the Amazon is not just Brazilian: it crosses the border and reaches the Guianas, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. These countries are also facing the same problems. Therefore, we must resume our inter-institutional cooperation and start developing joint crime-fighting strategies.

What are 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 prevent them from expanding their activities into Indigenous or Quilombola territories.

We also need to consolidate the demarcation of these traditional territories and involve riverine communities, Quilombolas, and Indigenous people in developing biodiversity-based alternatives. And we should develop an effective environmental protection policy, involving IBAMA, ICMBio, FUNAI, the Federal Police, and other agencies and powers working together, with integrated mechanisms.


Aiala Colares, 44

Colares has a degree in Geography, and a PhD in Socioenvironmental Development Sciences from the Federal University of Pará. He was born at Quilombo Menino Jesus de Petimandeua, in Inhangapi (PA), and is a member of the Quilombola and Black movement. He is currently a professor and researcher at the State University of Pará (UEPA), the coordinator of the UEPA Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies, and a member of the Brazilian Public Security Forum.

The Entranced Planet (Planeta em Transe) project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.