At COP26 in Glasgow, governments announced their intention to end deforestation by 2030 and $12 billion in commitments to conserve tropical forests. On the surface, this sounds like a positive development. According to the 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “there is no faster way” to reduce CO2 emissions than stopping deforestation.” Notably, the funding announced at COP26 will include support to Indigenous peoples’ conservation efforts.  Unfortunately, there was almost no mention of two of the biggest drivers of deforestation: corruption and organized crime.  If we don’t directly take on these two issues, demanding serious accountability from those responsible, most of that money will be wasted, and these commitments will only amount to more “blah, blah, blah,” as Greta Thunberg said.

Protest at COP26 in Glasgow. Photo Credit: Glasgow Actions @GlasgowActions

The Politics of Plunder

Deforestation doesn’t take place in an apolitical vacuum. The causes of deforestation can be traced back to decisions made by political actors to allow the expansion of the cattle, timber, agribusiness, mining, and oil industries to enter pristine forest areas in the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Southeast Asia. These decisions include non-enforcement of environmental protection laws, under-resourcing of enforcement agencies, and the development of laws and regulations that deliberately undermine the rights of Indigenous peoples. These decisions, in turn, are driven by the desire for illicit gains, i.e., money. There is simply too much money to be made too easily by plundering our global forests. And the risk of accountability in most cases is close to zero.

Deforestation-related corruption is enabled by deep historical racism of governmental elites against Indigenous peoples who live in the forest. Destruction of their land and livelihoods is tolerated because of racism and greed. 

Criminal networks that exploit natural resources like timber and gold and drive deforestation for illicit coca production thrive on antipathy towards Indigenous peoples and states’ limited capacity and political will to stamp out the problem. They are abetted by governments in the Global North that don’t do enough to block the import of illegal commodities and hold their own officials, and other problematic actors, accountable for forest-destroying acts of corruption. 

Give Land Back to Indigenous Peoples

Dumping megatons of technocratic cash on the problem of deforestation won’t solve it.  “Money is not going to save us from money,” said the Swift Foundation’s Alejandro Argumedo in response to the announcement. Instead, we need an approach that recognizes the inherently political nature of the issue and serves to strengthen the counterweights. This includes removing ambiguities over Indigenous land rights and territorial control in forest areas. Indigenous peoples must have effective control of forest areas if they are to protect them effectively. This also means increasing support to their collective protection measures, which they used to defend themselves during the pandemic and are needed now during an unprecedented wave of violence and killing directed at Indigenous forest defenders. 

People vs. Fossil fuels protest in Washington, D.C., October 2021

Cancel Climate Criminals

Northern governments should adopt a policy of zero tolerance for the import of any commodity that is produced on illegally- deforested land. US Senator Brian Schatz has outlined such an approach in a bill he recently introduced that would ban US imports of agricultural commodities produced in this way – including on land taken without the consent of Indigenous peoples. Governments should consider forest-destruction a climate crime and adopt measures to sanction those who engage in or enable it, much as governments, like the US, sanction foreign officials and companies involved in corruption and human rights abuses. Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar have floated such an approach with the Targeting Environmental and Climate Recklessness Act, which would put sanctions on individuals and companies responsible for, among other things, contributing to illegal deforestation.

Governments and corporations also must stop the use of aggressive tactics and repression against Indigenous peoples who speak out against forest destruction. A rising trend of repression against them and other climate defenders was documented in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly. A SLAPP suit filed against Peruvian Indigenous federation FENAMAD for resisting Amazon deforestation by a timber company is one specific example of this trend. 

Ultimately, protecting tropical forests isn’t simply a question of demarcating more protected areas, planting more trees, collecting more data, and hiring more forest rangers. It will require attacking, at all levels, the corruption and organized crime that drive deforestation, and further strengthening the collective protection and autonomy of Indigenous peoples as the rightful and most effective protectors of the forest.