Amazonia is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, spread over nine South American countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela), with approximately 60% of the forest (over four million square kilometers) located in in the north of Brazil. Brazilian Amazonia is home to around 45,000 different plant and animal species. This rainforest is also crucial to the global environment, especially with respect to climate change. During the past several months, an increase in the number and extent of forest fires in Brazilian Amazonia has triggered great concern, much of it focused on whether the Bolsonaro Administration’s policies are partly to blame for the widespread fires. While that conversation is no doubt important, it is also crucial to recognize that environmental crimes in Amazonia—including those related to the fires—are in part the product of widespread corruption, and that addressing Amazonia’s environmental crisis will require addressing Brazil’s governance crisis as well.
To understand how and why corruption is contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a bit of background is in order. The greatest environmental threats in this region are the illegal harvesting of timber and the illegal clearing of land (often through burning) to prepare the land for commercial use for agriculture and livestock. (Between 70% and 80% of the deforested area in Amazonia has been used to create pasture for breeding cattle to produce meat for domestic and international consumption.) To be sure, Brazil has laws in place to protect Amazonia from over-exploitation and other forms of environmental damage. About 80% of the land in Amazonia is publicly owned; on this public land, the forest may not be exploited or burned. The remaining 20% of Amazonia is private land owned by individuals or corporations; even for this privately owned land, Brazilian law requires that the owners keep between 50% and 80% of the area intact and unexploited. The Brazilian government is responsible for enforcing these rules and for regulating and overseeing the extraction, transportation, and commercialization of timber from Amazonia. The regulatory system involves government approval of forest management plans, the issuance of permits for timber harvesting and land clearing, and the tracking of timber to ensure that it was not illegally removed from public lands or from the protected areas of private lands.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in practice, private companies collude with corrupt public servants—forest wardens, police officers, and others—to evade these rules. As a result, substantial quantities of timber are illegally extracted from public lands and protected private areas, and agricultural and livestock interests illegally burn and clear irreplaceable forests. The corrupted public servants not only turn a blind eye to these environmental crimes, but they also warn the infringers about possible inspections by other agents.
Brazilian law enforcement agencies have been trying to combat the criminal organizations and corrupt officials engaged in the illegal deforestation of Amazonia since at least the beginning of the 2000s, conducting numerous large-scale operations that have uncovered and prosecuted corruption by, among others, forest wardens, police officers, government attorneys, and high-level officials of a state environmental agency. Yet despite these aggressive efforts, the investigation and prosecution of corruption crimes in Amazonia face serious difficulties. Extensive areas of forest without human presence impair the efficient prevention and detection of unlawful activities. Corrupt public servants can hamper the collection of evidence. And the effectiveness of prosecutions is undermined by the significant delay in judicial proceedings, a problem caused in large part by the absence of a dedicated federal appellate court for the Amazon region. (Just to illustrate: One of the first major federal law enforcement operations against environmental crime and corruption in Amazonia began fourteen years ago, but there are still not any final decisions in any of the prosecutions that resulted from that operation.) The sense of impunity encourages the persistence of illegality and environmental degradation.
Despite these challenges—or perhaps because of them—greater attention to the corruption dimension of environmental degradation in Amazonia is vital. Brazil needs to intensify its efforts to attack this problem and remedy the deficiencies of the current system. An effective approach should embrace a range of measures, including some or all of the following:
- First, Brazil should amend its laws to enhance penalties for corruption offenses that are associated with environmental crime. (That is, a connection to environmental crime should be considered an aggravating circumstance for an ordinary corruption offense, such as bribery.) This change, along with a more general increase in the penalties for environmental crimes, would send a powerful message and enhance the deterrent effect of the criminal law in this area.
- Second, Brazil should allocate more resources to the prevention, detection, and repression of corruption crimes related to the environment. Large expanses of forest require sufficient human supervision, implemented under a proper structure that promotes integrity. Yet today the Brazilian federal environmental agency has over 2,000 vacant positions, a number that is almost half of total number of positions. This situation hinders not only environmental oversight but also internal discipline and integrity.
- Third, Brazilian regulatory and enforcement authorities should make greater use of technology, such as big data and business intelligence tools, to monitor forest exploitation, and to identify not only possible violations, but also instances of likely complicity of public agents. More intensive use of technology would help to overcome the natural difficulties that the protection of Amazonia poses.
- Fourth, as noted above, Brazil should create a federal appellate court specifically for the Amazon region, in order to increase the speed of criminal cases related to Amazonia exploitation. The Brazilian Constitution contains a provision about this topic (Amendment n. 73), which states that a federal appellate court with jurisdiction over states of the Amazon region must be created, but this amendment has not yet been implemented.
This is all easier said than done, of course, but addressing the corruption problem in Amazonia is vital to ensure sustainable and honest use of natural resources, with the ultimate goal of protecting a forest that is crucial to the Earth’s environmental balance.