In popular accounts of the Amazon, organized crime in the region is often associated with illicit drug trade and illegal extraction of wood. While both activities continue to take place in the region, recent evidence shows that criminal networks are increasingly focusing on illegal mining.
The rise in the price of gold, coupled with its abundance in the Amazonian soil, together with the relative ease of extraction and the effective absence of the state in much of the region, have made mining more lucrative for many criminal networks than the trade in cocaine. An interactive online map released by RAISG, a consortium of organizations in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru shows that illegal mining (not only of gold but also diamonds and coltan) has spread not only into remote areas of the Amazon, but also along border areas.
The impacts of illegal mining
In river areas, illegal gold mining relies on barges that dredge riverbeds, turning the silt so that the gold can be easily extracted. In addition to destroying the river ecology, this process requires mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal that contaminates the water and leeches into the soil, tainting the entire food chain and affecting the health of local residents. In other areas, miners fell trees and use high-grade explosives to blast soils, leaving behind enormous wounds – some of which, as in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, being the size of major cities. This activity has become one of the main drivers of deforestation in the region.
Research by Igarapé Institute shows that, in major hotspots, illegal mining is by no means the only criminal activity as it tends to attract and aggregate many other forms of crime. The criminal networks rely on slave labor and human trafficking to power mining sites, bringing in forced prostitution and precarious communities to these sites.
Indigenous and quilombola (Afro-descendant) populations of the Amazon, whose protected lands are especially coveted, particularly feel the negative socioeconomic impacts of these activities: Makeshift towns spring up around mining sites complete with illegal gambling sites, forced prostitution and illegal armed groups. These sites exhibit high incidences of violence, including homicides and sexual violence. In some areas, the appearance of landing strips shows that cartels also use these spaces as hubs for the drug trade.
Technology and corruption – fuels for illegal mining
Those criminal networks rely on the latest technologies, from social networks and bitcoins to signals stolen from foreign defence satellites, to manage their mining operations and circumvent monitoring. The weak capacity of the state, widespread corruption, including among the armed forces and police as well as politicians with vested interests all help to ensure that these groups often act unimpeded and with absolute impunity.
Although the impacts of illegal gold mining in the Amazon are highly localized, the phenomenon is deeply transnational. Older drug trafficking routes are now used to transport mercury, the import of which in large quantities is forbidden in Brazil. Profits are funnelled into money laundering schemes that swiftly cross borders, or are otherwise channelled into cyberspace via virtual currencies.
Working together – constraints and recommendations
International cooperation in the Amazon region remains weak and piecemeal, vulnerable to faltering political will. The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), a socio-economic bloc formed by Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela, was created to foster sustainable development and security in the region. Yet member states’ police forces, prosecutors and other actors involved in investigation and law enforcement rarely trade information, let alone coordinate actions. Collective action is made more difficult by the disparate legal definitions of “environmental crime” used by the countries of the Amazon.
However, in order to dismember these criminal networks, robust coordination is needed among the region’s countries. Information gathering and analysis must be done in cooperation and draw on the highly sophisticated technologies already in place, including satellite-based monitoring systems that are put in place for defence and environmental surveillance. Policy coordination and, in border areas, joint operations may be required to prevent the expansion or quick reconfiguration of criminal networks.
Ultimately, such coordination and cooperation will depend on diplomatic efforts by states whose leaderships have historically underscored national sovereignty, but which nonetheless face many common challenges. Without further confidence-building and cooperation within the region, organized crime will continue to flourish and fuel violence in the Amazon, whether through illegal mining or via other activities.
Adriana Erthal Abdenur coordinates the International Peace & Security division of Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank dedicated to issues of justice, peace and security based in Rio de Janeiro.
[The views expressed in this article are personal.]