Why is the Amazon rainforest so dangerous? The Economist explains
Criminal groups bring corruption, drug-trafficking and murder, which the authorities often fail to stop
"This englishman had a bad reputation in the region because he did a lot of reporting against gold miners," said Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, on June 15th. Hours later police announced that they had found human remains likely to be those of Dom Phillips, a British journalist who was working on a book called "How to Save the Amazon", and Bruno Pereira, an expert on indigenous peoples. A fisherman has confessed to the crime, and his brother has also been detained, but authorities expect further arrests. Mr Phillips and Mr Pereira went missing on June 5th during a reporting trip, and were last seen in Javari Valley, a Brazilian region of the Amazon near Colombia and Peru (see map).
As well as having the highest concentration of uncontacted indigenous people in the world, the Amazon is home to arms- and drug-trafficking, and illegal hunting, logging and mining. Although data are scant, Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental activist, according to Global Witness, a NGO. Some 20 people were killed there last year. Nearly all of those murders happened in the Amazon. The murder rate in Amazonian cities is 40% higher than in other Brazilian municipalities. Why is the rainforest so dangerous?
Violence is nothing new for the region. In the 1970s Brazil's military regime built highways and hydroelectric dams on indigenous lands, and killed thousands of indigenous people in the process. The government's motto at that time was "to occupy not to surrender", and some migrants invited by the government to transform forest into pasture took this to heart. Environmentalists such as Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang were murdered, in 1988 and 2005, respectively, after confronting farmers. Those responsible were not always caught-and when they were, justice came years later. The authorities blamed the difficulty of access and transport in the forest for the delays.
In recent years authorities have done little to reduce the lawlessness of the Amazon. Since Mr Bolsonaro took office in 2019, he has attempted to decriminalise mining on indigenous lands and promised not to set aside "even one more centimetre for indigenous [people]". His attempts to rip up environmental legislation have been stalled by Congress and the Supreme Court. But his rhetoric has encouraged criminals to act more freely. A lack of opportunities in the formal economy has also turned the local population into a cheap labour source for nefarious activities.
Illegal deforestation has increased by over 60% in the past three years. Since 2017, 30% of environmental crimes also involved suspected fraud, and 20% of them involved corruption, according to the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank. In half of the cases, criminal organisations were also implicated-among them Brazil's two largest gangs, First Capital Command and Comando Vermelho (Red Command). Criminal factions native to the Amazon have also emerged in the past decade, such as Cartel do Norte (Northern Cartel) and Os Crias (The Offspring). They rarely fight with local governments, which usually turn a blind eye to their activities (because of connivance or a lack of resources), but they clash with indigenous groups, activists and each other.
When federal authorities try to intervene, their agents face death threats, as Mr Pereira reported last April. He lost his job at Funai, the government agency responsible for looking after indigenous lands, shortly after taking part in an operation that destroyed 60 illegal mining rafts, boats used to search for gold. A dossier released by an NGO this month showed that, in recent years, experts on indigenous peoples have been replaced by army officers in senior positions at Funai, which seems to be part of a broader trend of the army gaining influence under Mr Bolsonaro. This is not necessarily a good thing. It was indigenous people who first began searching for the missing men, while the army waited for the order to help. If Brazil's politicians continue to neglect the Amazon, criminals will exploit it, putting the people who stand up for it in danger.
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