Thomson Reuters Foundation
A share of the cattle supplied to Brazil's markets are fattened on illegally deforested Amazon land. To conceal that fact from buyers, the animals often are passed through many hands and holdings before being sold, Brazilian researchers said.
That process of "regularizing" beef makes it hard for buyers to ensure their supply chains are deforestation-free - one reason widespread forest loss continues, researchers said in a study looking at how environmental crimes in the Amazon basin are often inter-related.
To disrupt the activities of such networks, and prevent illegally sourced products flooding global markets, making the connections clear is vital, said Ilona Szabó, executive director of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think-think that published the study this week.
"This includes shining a light not just on crime groups and shady business but also the corrupt government officials - including police, notary clerks, customs officials, and politicians - who facilitate the business," Szabó said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
To track the regional and national networks that drive environmental crime across the Amazon, researchers have teamed up with Interpol, InSight Crime - a non-profit journalism and investigation organization - and other partners, Szabó said.
The effort looked first at Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and was later extended to Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, the study noted.
What researchers found is that illegal activities in the Amazon basin often interact in problematic ways and can have multiple environmental impacts.
Small-scale gold mining, for instance, can drive deforestation, contamination of soils and waterways, land tenure violations and violence.
As part of the effort to better track and respond to such illegal activity in the Amazon, researchers are creating a live digital map of incidents, to try to better identify patterns and overlaps.
The tool, which will rely on remote sensing as well as field visits, should be ready next July, they said.
"The end goal is to create a publicly available tool that can shine a light on crime in the supply chain, targeting asset managers, investment banks, ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] investors, pensions funds, and consumers who are demanding action," Szabó said.
Lack of cooperation
Fighting environmental crime in the Amazon basin - spread across a range of countries - can be difficult because of a lack of international cooperation, said Adriana Abdenur, one author of the study.
"The Amazon is a profoundly international space," said Abdenur, co-founder of Plataforma Cipó, an laboratory of climate and governance ideas.
An Amazon Cooperation Treaty between eight Amazonian countries, which dates back to 1978, aims to promote "harmonious" development of the region and human well-being.
But it and other agreements "are not being used effectively to promote international cooperation for the region", Abdenur said.
According to MapBiomas, an organization that investigates and validates deforestation alerts in Brazil, more than 90% of all forest loss in the Amazon basin is illegal.
And the situation is worsening, the group said, with deforestation in Brazil rising more than 34% in the 12 months through July, compared to a year earlier.
In Bolivia, fires in 2019 created a rate of forest loss 80% higher than in any previous year, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Colombia similarly saw high rates of deforestation last year, and has lost hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest over the past decade, WRI noted.
Such rapid loss of carbon-absorbing forests is helping drive worsening climate impacts that threaten hundreds of millions of people in South America who rely on the forest to produce rainfall that supports the region's food security, Szabó said.
"Put simply, environmental crime is not just aggravated by climate change - it drives climate change", she said.
Low levels of regional cooperation in addressing environmental crime are the result of a lack of trust among governments in the region - and the fact that some officials benefit for illegal activities, Szabó said.
Even within countries, "public agencies rarely coordinate effectively to locate, investigate, prosecute and penalize environmental crimes - which explains sky-high impunity," she said.