Home » Side event: Amazon at risk: Environmental justice and the urgency of drug policy reform

Side event: Amazon at risk: Environmental justice and the urgency of drug policy reform

Organised by Health Poverty Action with the support of Brazil, the Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad, the Global Drug Policy Observatory, the International Coalition Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice, the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Washington Office for Latin America, the Transnational Institute, SOS Amazonia and Viso Mutop

Clemmie James, Health Poverty Action: Thank you for coming to this discussion on the Amazon. Somebody said that this topic was becoming more and more popular a the CND. So watch this space. But you cannot protect nature if an unregulated violent trade is running through it. Environmental harms can be mitigated. But removing all forms of accountability can cause many forms of harms to the environment. The illegal trade can erode environmental gains too. Will public funds be used to mitigate illegal floods, or safeguard those poorest as the climate crisis intensified. If state officials work with or collude with the drug trade, they will perpetuate the system to ensure the smooth running of the trade. We need strong climate governance. In the next 18 months, the world’s eyes will be on the Amazon ahead of COP29. We need an intersectional, decolonised reconfiguration of how a trade this size is run. It’s not radical, it’s essential to our future existence.

Dave Bewley-Taylor, Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University. My aim is simple: setting the scene for this session and contextualise the growing discussion in Vienna. In recent years, we witnessed a welcome increase in attention on the issues with UNODC’s WDRs, the side events and increased attention in member states’ statements, and in the annual resolution on AD and within that, links with the SDGs. It is also worth noting its disappointing but still mention in the outcome document. There are direct and indirect impacts of drug policies on the environment, with labels such as narcodeforestation, etc, mainly used for the Amazon basin. It’s possible to argue that there remains a lack of emphasis of policy impacts on policy interventions. In depth analysis of interconnected illegal markets and the range of criminal actors is important and illuminated. But it should also include the harms affecting communities and state obligations to protect them and the environment. Other disciplinary frameworks exist, and mindful of the link between Vienna and Geneva, links can be made through the human rights lens and environmental protection. The approach of green criminology can shift attention away from criminal markets and focus on victims’ rights. It can serve as an entry point to address many human rights and environmental concerns, relevant to the Amazon Basin. There, indigenous rights are particularly relevant. We can then shape narratives within the international drug control debates. It’s encouraging seeing the UNODC engage in criminology, especially if therer is an emphasis on the impact of policy interventions on the environment. But it’s not without its problems, including for green criminology and the focus on the overarching structures of harms. Whichever way you look at it, it’s bcoming more difficult to ignore the harms of the overarching punitive framework which prohibits a comprehensive analysis that goes beyond this corner of the UN.

Sandra Bermudez, Viso Mutop, Colombia. Viso Mutop has been working in the Colombian Amazon for a little over 10 years. We have seen, lived and documented the process by which it was settled, its socio-environmental dynamics and conflicts, and the way the state approaches this territory and the people who live there.  During the last year we have focused on identifying what variables determine, now with greater intensity, the loss of forest in one of the most important ecosystems in the world and with the greatest biodiversity. It is important for us to see how much coca cultivation contributes to deforestation, and how the implementation of drug policy dynamizes a constant cycle that perpetuates the mutually reinforcing dynamic that takes us from ccoca – to the expansion of the agricultural frontier – back to coca.  We would like to share with you some conclusions that show that the Amazon is indeed at risk and this is influenced by several factors.

The global drug market and global drug policy are determining factors for the region and its inhabitants, especially for peasants and indigenous people. Since the end of the 1970s, coca was the main source of livelihood for the population, which, in search of land, moved to the northern Amazon. Today coca is in other regions of the country, but it persists in the Amazon. As you can see in this map (map 1), there is evidently deforestation associated with coca crops, however, the impact of coca on deforestation between 2014 and 2022 is less than other economic activities, some of them also illegal. Coca only contributes 7% to deforestation in the region. Another relevant element, and that we can also see in this image, is that, since the 2016 Peace Agreement signed between the Farc guerrilla and the Colombian Government, deforestation increased at rates never seen before. Once the guerrillas left these territories and the State did not move to control d, the mafias that launder money through land and cattle ranching saw a repository of food and an opportunity in the region.

What is happening here is that the forest and all the biodiversity that each hectare of Amazonia possesses, is being cut down to become mainly grasslands, which will end up being the habitat of extensive cattle ranching. This is nothing other than a dynamic of land grabbing, as can be seen in this map (see map 2). Deforestation associated with forest clearing and the creation of grasslands has contributed, in some periods, to 77% of the total deforestation in the region, and about 50% of this is converted into pasture for cattle ranching. The toal cattle herd has reached 3 million head of cattle (cows). In the last years, the increase of farms with more than 500 head of cattle (cows) was 33%. This is nothing more than the growth of large estates.

In the last 7 years, deforestation in the Colombian Amazon has been mainly associated with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the uncontrolled growth of the extensive cattle herding, and land grabbing in environmentally protected areas, mainly in the forest reserve zone and national natural parks. Coca crops contribute to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, but the implementation of a punitive drug policy increases the problem. To the extent that growing coca is a criminalized activity, farmers plant their crops in the deepest parts of the jungle. This means on the one hand that the crops become the spearhead of the expansion of the agricultural frontier and that families and communities are doubly criminalized for growing coca, and now for deforesting the forest where they will plant the new crops, without the state guaranteeing their rights. The persistence, over long periods of time, of coca crops in this region is associated with the fact that the problems of the peasantry continue to be the same as always, and are summarized in the isolation from the centers where services are provided and decisions are made, and little, and sometimes even nonexistent, access to fundamental rights.

Finally, it is important that drug policy is in dialogue with environmental policy, but above all with territorial development policy, and to access to rights for thousands of coca-growing families and communities, who continue to be persecuted and still have not seen resolved a fundamental problem such as access, use and tenure of land. Prohibitionism continues to define the institutional work route. This means that it continues to push people towards the bottom of the jungle, to territories controlled by illegal armed actors, who violently regulate the markets. This opens the doors to organized crime, which for years has been moving between mixed economies, between the illicit and the licit for the control of the territory, opens the doors to an excessive land grabbing and aggravates the socio-environmental problems, postponing dignified solutions for the populations.

 Rebeca Lerer. I’m here to present on the intersection between land use and prohibition in South America. This is not a new story, it’s known phenomenon in Brazil related to violence, territorial use and human rights. Multiple trafficking networks are colluding and making the situation worse. We also have a legacy from the previous government, linked to a series of policies and measures over land use and tenure. There were also changes in the possession and use of arms and resulting violence. Armed violence has exploded in areas of deforestation. Brazil does not produce coca or cannabis. We have other drivers, which is land grabbing, in particular public forests that have not yet been protected by the State. 70% of deforestation is linked to cattle. We also have large iron mining across the amazon. There is also infrastructure such as landing strips, railroads, etc. That contribute to deforestation and contribute to gas emissions. I always like to talk about the other biomes. Brazil is not all about the Amazon. The Cerrado, Pantanal and Atlantic Rainforest are also important trafficking routes for weapons, human trafficking, etc. There is increased pressure on territorial rights for local communities. The current Lula government is making efforts to address these issues. But the situation remains critical and the violence indicators remain really high. When we talk about violence and organised crime in the Amazon region, there is an overlap between environmental and non-environmental issues (corruption for instance), there is a huge increase in homicide and violence, an absence of territorial rights for local communities, no indigenous rights. This makes the communities more vulnerable to environmental activities. Illegal deforestation is an industry so there is a risk they can be recruited to work in that industry. We see that the Amazon states have GDPs well below the national average. Several researchers and studies have found that the criminal landscape is increasingly fragmented and specialised. When I read the narco deforestation paper from UNODC, something struck me. That the same corridors designed to expand agricultural yields facilitated the penetration of the drug economy and crimes that affect the environment. But in Brazil, it really is the other way around. Having worked on climate and land issues and on drug policy, I want to say that if we don’t face this intersection, we will lose. Because this general narrative on organised crime misses the point on how prohibition empowers criminal organisations. And this is clear in the Amazon region. Between 2016 and 2022, the number of police killings went up by 70%, incarceration by 25%. And those affected are black, young, poor. We are reproducing a failed model that targets the same kinds of people. It is also important to highlight that most people targeted are unarmed. Recruitment by criminal organisations actually happens within prisons. Brazil also plays an important role in the chain of distribution of cocaine. This stems from the structure and size of the industry. How can we counter an industry if you don’t know how big it is? We also need to talk about the cannabis issue. Brazil was one of the first countries to prohibit cannabis in the world, 5 years before the USA, and yet it is the most consumed substance in the world. It is also responsible for 30% of drug arrests. 80% of cannabis that is consumed in Brazil comes from Paraguay. We know the climate crisis is real. Prohibition drug policies foster environmental crime and hinder zero deforestation efforts. So there is no climate justice if there is an ongoing war on plant-based drugs. It is time for us to say yes to drugs and no to the climate crisis. 

Marta Machado, Brazil. I am here representing the Brazilian secretary on drug policy. I am grateful to the organisers, and want to highlight the importance of the intersection between drug policies and damage on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon has a key impact. Previous speakers have said a lot before me on this issue already. There has been an increase in drug trafficking routes in the Amazon region, with an array of criminals in those territories, driving environmental destruction, land grabbing, extreme violence, and targeting of environmental rights defenders. There is a link between drug trafficking and illegal mining. Illegal mining has widely expanded. Between 2020 and 2022, 65% of the gold originated in one key region of Brazil within the Amazon. The social environmental losses were huge during the same period. The consequences generated by gold extraction have been huge on Indigenous and local communities. Some indigenous territories in Brazil: between 50 and 90% suffer from poison. They have also witnessed increases in violence, increased suicide rates, and health problems. Law enforcement is increasing its presence in the region. We have all learned that police repression is not the way to promote sustainable results, and mostly impacts already marginalised communities. It is not a coincidence that we witnessed an increase in the incarceration of indigenous peoples. This reality shows the need for more focused drug policies to address the root causes and increase the resilience of Indigenous communities. While we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on AD, we need to highlight these issues. Trafficking routes from Brazil mainly go to Africa and Europe. Routes exploit mostly vulnerable groups, including indigenous and other territorial groups. In response, we will implement comprehensive strategies to reverse the effects of drug trafficking. We launched the National Strategy for Promoting Access to Rights for Women, including Indigenous women and women of African descent. We also have a National Strategy for Racial Justice in Drug Policy to ensure access to opportunities away from criminal networks. We launched the Centre for Studies on Drugs in partnership with UNODC and UNDP to develop pilot projects. We had a side event at this year’s CND and convened a high level segment last week with a constructive debate on the environmental impact on the Amazon. What we are discussing here is highly relevant for our work.

Daniela Diaz, SOS Amazon. Most of our coalition members have said the most important thing already. Let me discuss our situation here living in the border. We are based in the border between Bolivia and Peru. Deforestation has been driven by illegal logging. Various organisations have done a lot of research on this issue, with links between drug trafficking and high rates of violence, lack of intervention of policy making, and too much money spent on the war on drugs. There are 33 deaths per 100,000 in the region. It’s time to build a strategic debate on drug policies. There is a lack of integration of projects in the Amazon basin. In the border with Peru, we are in the process of building roads. Between 2022 and 2022, there have been 63 illegal planes tracked for drug trafficking. The region has been taken over by drug trafficking and illegal logging, making the border more unstable.

Clemmie. Thanks so much to all of you and our cosponsors. We will be here if you want to talk to us.

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