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.