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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Where defending nature can be deadly

RIO DE JANEIRO — The world’s forests are increasingly threatened and the main thing keeping some of them alive are the people, many of them Indigenous, standing up against those who want to clear the land.

Today, I want to explain why life is becoming increasingly dangerous for forest defenders and other environmental activists.

In the last decade at least 1,733 people have died defending the environment, according to a report by Global Witness, an environmental watchdog group. No region has been more dangerous than Latin America. Over two-thirds of the deaths recorded by Global Witness happened in the region. Brazil, where I’m writing this, tops the list. Most murders of Brazilian activists happened in the Amazon rainforest.

Latin America is one of the world’s most violent places in general, and that’s largely because of the drug trade. What scares many of the activists and law enforcement officials in Brazil I’ve talked to in recent months is the fact that drug cartels are becoming more deeply involved in environmental crime.

One of the main reasons is that, in recent years, the Amazon has become an important drug route. (Here’s a map.) The cartels running these routes are professional, heavily armed and extremely violent.

The areas they need to dominate to make these routes work overlap with regions where illegal logging, mining, land-grabbing and other environmental crimes are rampant. Officials say they think overlapping interests are generating alliances between these different criminal groups.

Another factor: Getting involved in environmental crime carries little risk for the cartels. As one federal police official here explained to me a few months ago, the cost of plundering nature is low. Trafficking cocaine could get you up to 15 years in jail in Brazil. Illegally mining for gold could get you one.

Beto Marubo, a leader and organizer from the Javari Valley Indigenous territory, said he had seen exactly that. “Today organized gangs that had no role in environmental crime are starting to do it,” he told me. “If there is an opportunity to make more profits, why not?”

It was near his land, near Brazil’s border with Peru, that the journalist Dom Phillips and an Indigenous expert, Bruno Pereira, were killed this year.

The pattern has been repeated across the region. As my colleague Nick Casey showed, illegally mined gold that poisons rivers is an important source of income for organized crime in Colombia. My colleague Catrin Einhorn also found an organized crime connection to illegal fishing that’s threatening to wipe out the vaquita porpoise in Mexico.

In theory, there’s an international pact to help fight this kind of crime: The Escazú Agreement, the first environmental treaty in Latin America. Governments that sign the pact commit to preventing and investigating attacks on environmental defenders.

It entered into force in April last year. But some of the deadliest countries for activists, like Colombia and Brazil, have yet to join.

Doing so could give a boost to environmental defenders. So many of them I’ve interviewed through the years are terrified because they have no one to turn to. They give up their safety and their sanity to report the destruction they see to prosecutors and the police. Often, nothing happens.

Last year, for example, I interviewed a rubber tapper who was threatened by land-grabbers who wanted him to leave his home in the Amazon rainforest. He reported the threats to several law enforcement agencies and journalists, but no one has yet been held accountable.

When Dom died, a lot of my journalist friends who report in the Amazon said it was evidence that there was a war against nature.

It got me thinking about how similar it is to the so-called war on drugs that the world has waged for so many decades. Criminals grow rich, corrupt officials look away and communities of color are left to count the dead.


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Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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