Eco-Trafficking in Latin America: The Failures of the State

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The profits on offer for eco-trafficking rival those of drugs, arms and people trafficking, while the transnational networks behind it corrupt institutions, destroy eco-systems and ruin livelihoods. So why does Latin America not take eco-trafficking more seriously?

Eco-trafficking in Latin America does not catch the headlines of the global media in the way it can in Asia and Africa, where the ivory trade, majestic beasts and big game poachers make for striking images and stories.

The eco-traffickers themselves do not catch the attentions of the Latin American authorities, which remain focused on the movements of narcotics rather than timber and wildlife. 

It is a good time to be an eco-trafficker in Latin American.

This is the second in a two-part series on eco-trafficking in Latin America. See part one here.

Around the world, the issue of eco-trafficking is reaching a critical moment and governments are unprepared, say experts, with the illegal logging trade fueling rampant deforestation and wildlife trafficking driving rare species to extinction.

“We are applying annual strategies to a half-century crime-wave, which is rapidly devastating a process of evolution that has taken place over 4 billion years,” stated a new report on environmental crime by the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime (pdf).

“Environmental crime is time sensitive and most often irreversible. We are at the tipping point, where any effort may well be too late,” it added.

Yet in Latin America, the biggest challenge for campaigners is often to force governments to take the issue seriously.

“There are some countries that have poor records, some have better records than others and some simply do not want to recognize the impact this is having or the role that transnational wildlife crime plays in their country,” said Jorge Rios, who heads the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) new Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime (GP).

Tentative Steps

In recent years, some Latin American countries and regional security forces have taken tentative steps to combat eco-trafficking.

In 2012, international police agency Interpol launched the region’s first coordinated anti-logging campaign, working with security forces from 12 countries around the region. “Operation Lead” saw nearly 200 arrests and the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars of timber, and was followed up by further operations focusing on Venezuela and Costa Rica.

Brazil, which is the epicenter of illegal logging in the region, has also taken action to combat the trade, including the deployment of troops to jungle regions, use of drones to monitor deforestation and the implementation of a “chain of custody” system that is designed to prevent the export of untraceable timber (pdf).

However, after four years of falling deforestation levels in Brazil, there was a 28 percent rise in 2013, with 5,843 square kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon logged — up to 80 percent of it illegal, according to the government’s estimates.

Efforts to tackle wildlife trafficking have been even less promising. Brazil is one of the few countries to have launched operations specifically targeting animal trafficking, carrying out raids in coordination with Interpol in 2012. In other countries, seizures tend to be more by luck than design, although that did not stop authorities seizing 46,000 trafficked animals in 2012 in Colombia alone.

Little Will, Less Power

The challenges facing Latin American authorities if they are to turn the tide on eco-trafficking are enormous, and the will, say experts, is weak.

“It is very difficult to change something when there is not really an understanding of why it happens and how to change it,” said Bernardo Ortiz, head of the South America office of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic.

One of the main challenges is providing security forces with the tools to detect and investigate eco-trafficking, which requires not only awareness of trafficking techniques but also the technical knowledge of the most sought after trees and animal species, and their habitats.

Campaigners are also calling for training of prosecutors and judges, and reforms to legal codes to ensure the crime is taken seriously, which will be one of the tasks of the UNODC’s new program.

“There are billions of dollars to be made but if you’re a trafficker and you get caught in some countries you pay a civil fine,” said Rios. “You’re very seldom looking at jail time, and if you do then it’s just part of doing business and it’s not a big deal.”

Even the best efforts of the most well-intentioned governments are often stymied by corruption, which facilitates eco-trafficking from the top to the bottom. While animal traffickers use corrupt contacts in a similar way to drug traffickers — to ensure their contraband remains concealed — those trafficking illegal timber are moving a product too big to conceal, so are dependent on corrupt contacts to merge it with the legal supply.

“There are so many different layers in these countries, checks and balances that are apt for corruption,” said Rios of the illegal timber trade. “The more checks and balances, the more corruption there is and the more money flows around — and there is a lot of money to be made.”

In countries with a strong organized crime presence, in particular Colombia, the issue of corruption is complicated by the plata o plomo (cash or lead) dynamic — the choice between a bribe or death. According to Ortiz, the more lucrative, the trade becomes, the more violent it gets.

“It is getting more sophisticated, more complicated, and more threatening to those authorities that are willing to do something,” he said.

One of the main obstacles to both building capacity and tackling corruption lies with the nature of the crime itself — one of the reasons timber and wildlife fetch a high price is because they are found in remote, difficult to access regions.

“There is no institutional presence in these places — by definition the valuable timber and wildlife is in places where the authorities have little presence,” said Ortiz.

This lack of presence in critical areas broadens the gaps between the words and intentions profferred by governments in international conventions and national policy statements, and the situation on the ground.

“No matter how much is said and done on the international level with policies and declarations and signing documents etcetera, on the ground level things stay the same as ever,” said Ortiz.

A War on Eco-Trafficking?

Despite their calls to action, environmental campaigners caution against a drug trade inspired “war on eco-trafficking” focused on seizures and interdictions and characterized by militaristic security operations.

“Militaries deployed against poachers and armed ranger units sent to combat illicit logging are creating a “war on environmental crime” which, like many of our self-declared wars, is doomed to be lost,” stated the Global Initiative report.

The experts that compiled the report also believe security forces’ efforts are currently focused on the wrong link in the eco-trafficking chain.

“The war is being waged at the wrong level. Relentlessly pursuing the “army of ants” — the individual poachers, transporters, corrupt customs officials — has little impact on the global trade in illicit environmental products,” the report states.

Instead, the experts say, security forces should focus on what Global Initiative calls “the controllers,” those that oversee the whole process, striking the deals, and arranging trafficking and end sales.

“This group of criminals exists at the heart of environmental crime and is the pivot within the networks of individuals around the globe who commit individual criminal acts at various nodes in the chain,” according to the report.

However, experts agree even if security forces are to improve their efforts, this alone cannot bring eco-trafficking under control, especially as such “controllers” often enjoy broad protection from corrupt political and economic elites.

According to Ortiz, for there to be any substantial progress, attacks against eco-trafficking networks must be supplemented by tightly regulated programs of sustainable resource management.

“[We need something that] takes this beyond the realm of the legal versus illegal. Right now the only instrument out there is putting it in the hands of police and confiscating stuff,” he said.

However, current attempts to regulate the trade are often counter-productive, according to Ortiz, because going legal is more costly — and risky — than operating in the underworld.

“In many situations the authorities will control only the ones that are registered as legal, if you are completely illegal, nobody will look at you,” he said.

Experts agree a critical part of both security operations and regulation and management will be reaching out to the communities on the ground — which in many cases represent the first link on the eco-trafficking chain.

“The only people that can actually see something going on are the communities, because you’re eight hours into the bush, there is no government, no rule of law,” said Rios.

However, whatever role communities and civil society may have to play, in the end, responsibility to act lies with the government, Rios says, and the list of actions the UNODC want to see from the authorities is long.

“The governments have to take it seriously,” he said. “They have to put prosecutors on, they have to train them, they need to do demand reduction, they need to bring in communities and they need to make it a serious crime.”

This is the second in a two-part series on eco-trafficking in Latin America. See part one here.

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