The Missing Guests at COP27? Drug Barons

Politicians don’t control the Amazon, cartels do.

by Clemmie James

7 November 2022

A group of officials sit at a panel facing aslant to the camera with microphones in front of them
Conservative MP Alok Sharma (centre), president of last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, attends an event on the first day of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, 6 November 2022. Credit: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto

As global leaders meet at COP27, they could do worse than offer members of Transnational Organised Crime a seat at the table.

Because when it comes to the pledges that will be made in Sharm El Sheikh – whether that’s stopping deforestation, protecting indigenous land rights, financing community responses to wildfires or implementing climate resilient development – it’s unlikely the people in the room will have the power to fulfil them.

Organised crime controls some of our planet’s most environmentally critical landscapes. The jungles of south-east Asia, forests of west Africa and the rainforests of central and south America are some of the planet’s largest carbon sinks and key to our climate future. This equatorial line also correlates to the world’s major drug trafficking routes. Where the illicit drug trade thrives so does corruption, because prohibition is the mother of organised crime.

$650bn a year.

The illicit drugs trade is worth approximately $650bn a year, more than pharmaceuticals, gold and crude petroleum. Organised crime groups use these profits to bribe, intimidate and control police, governments and judiciaries, to ensure drugs get from A to B. From rural police officers to heads of state are complicit.

The former president of Honduras, having been extradited to the USA, is in court for allegedly facilitating the smuggling of some 500 tonnes of drugs, mainly from Colombia and Venezuela, to the US via Honduras.

In Guinea Bissau, the former chief of the navy Admiral Jose Na Tchuto – who in 2013 was charged in the USA for trafficking cocaine into Guinea-Bissau – has reemerged this year and been accused of a coup on the current president.

Both countries have forests to save. Yet in countries where organised crime groups are as powerful as the state, and where corrupt state actors can make a killing from ensuring the illicit drug trade thrives, the environment will never be a priority.

A poison spreads.

The ways the drug trade poisons the environment are difficult to map. One way this happens is that profits from the trade are laundered throughout the trafficking regions, becoming the investment bank for agribusiness, cattle ranching, palm oil plantations and extractive economies such as logging and mining – some legal, most not, though all of which slash biodiversity, destroy forests and encroach on indigenous lands, thus increasing our vulnerability to the climate crisis. Huge fires in the Amazonia regions are set intentionally and have been blamed on increased human activity in the area, enabling the expansion of agriculture and cattle farming, illegal logging, mining and fuel extraction. Cocaine trafficking has been a key factor in accelerating the social and ecological transformation of rural landscapes across Latin America.

Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, Brazil pledged to end deforestation by 2030, yet in the first three months of 2022, deforestation in the country increased by 64% compared to the same period last year. There is no sign in Brazil of de-escalating and divesting from logging, mining or agribusinesses. It’s hard to believe that the drug trade didn’t play a part in this.

In the last few years, the Brazilian government has suspended operations to stop deforestation in the Amazon and fires in the Pantanal, defunding environmental agencies and fire response units despite the country suffering some of the worst fires ever recorded. For Brazil to meet its Paris Agreement commitment it will need to rein in the criminal groups that are driving much of the deforestation.

Similarly, Cambodia has some of the highest rates of deforestation of any country since the 1970s. This has detrimental social and economic effects on indigenous peoples who depend on the forest. The primary cause here is linked to illegal logging and corruption.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Upper Guinean forest is one of the most severely threatened forest systems in the world. The region is a global priority for biodiversity conservation but is experiencing increased deforestation through unregulated logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Many of the countries in this region – which include Guinea, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo – are transit hubs on drug trafficking routes between Latin America and Europe. The single greatest point of vulnerability lies in the region’s under-resourced criminal justice agencies, which are highly vulnerable to corruption. Even when arrested, international drug traffickers operating in West Africa are seldom sentenced.

Global drug policy undermines efforts to tackle climate change. In fact, the war on drugs has made organised crime better at corrupting the state apparatus. This will never be a receptive landscape to roll out green new deals.

Unchecked capitalism.

Illicit trades like that in drugs have no checks and balances, no labour rights or mechanisms to hold bosses to account. They are the worst kind of capitalism.

Zero regulations mean the trade causes an unrecorded amount of pollution, toxic waste, and water contamination in drug production and transportation. The fear of criminalisation for those working in the trade forces people to hide their cultivation from law enforcement, often resulting in the destruction of protected areas. In Colombia, there has been a 43% increase in coca plantations from 143,000 hectares in 2020 to 204,000 in 2021, with approximately 50% of the coca located in special management areas, home to indigenous communities and forest reserve areas.

Fighting the war on drugs directly harms the environment. From the fossil fuel emissions of patrolling borders, oceans and airspace to the forced eradication programs using aerial fumigation, the crackdown is not only environmentally destructive but counterproductive given evidence of the “balloon effect” whereby cultivation simply shifts to other, often more ecologically fragile, areas.

The unhelpful UN.

The illegal drug market is the largest of the illicit economies, and it is upheld year after year by the so-called political force for good: the UN. The aim of the UN’s office on drugs and crime and its commission on narcotic drugs is to create a “drug-free world”. Since the 1960s, both institutions have prohibited the growing, production and consumption of certain plants and drugs, enforcing this law with three international conventions. However, their efforts have failed; production and consumption have for the most part only increased.

Yet this is the same UN that hosts the intergovernmental panel on climate change, which last week stated that “only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster”; the same UN that convenes the conference of the parties each year to lean on countries to make pledges to respond to the climate emergency. The UN is causing the problem while trying to solve it.

The new president of Colombia Gustavo Petro didn’t mince his words when he recently addressed the UN general assembly: “The climate disaster that will kill hundreds of millions of people is not being caused by the planet, it is being caused by capital,” he said. “The developed world let the rainforest burn as an excuse for the war against drugs.”

Global drug policy, in other words, works to undermine efforts to tackle climate change.

“By hiding the truth, they will only see the rainforest and democracies die,” Petro added. “The war on drugs has failed. The fight against the climate crisis has failed.”

A just transition.

60 years of this legislation have shown that the harm of prohibiting drugs far outweighs the harm of using them. In almost all parts of the world, it is the most vulnerable communities that are disproportionately impacted by punitive drug policies, not to mention the violence and corruption of the drug trade itself.

In the UK and USA, communities of colour are stopped and searched for drugs and incarcerated at higher numbers than white people. In Latin America, India and Myanmar, Indigenous communities are systematically targeted through forced crop eradication of coca and opium. Poor communities miss out because governments fight the war on drugs using resources that should be spent on sustainable development, strengthening health systems and protecting the environment. There is, however, a solution: we legally regulate the drug trade, remove power from organised crime and ensure the trade works for climate justice, not against it.

The legal regulation of cannabis is accelerating, with Germany and Thailand being some of the latest countries to commit to regulation. Colombia has a bill to regulate cocaine and a new president who wants to overhaul the failed drug wars. Bolivia, meanwhile, has legalised the cultivation of the coca leaf for cultural purposes, reducing poverty in indigenous communities and enabling the creation of unions, which in turn have reshaped local democracy.

To ensure that legal regulation supports food sovereignty, equitable livelihoods, mitigates climate change and includes those most impacted by decades of prohibition, we need to design it from the bottom up.

Delays in developing progressive regulation will risk big corporate monopolies dominating the markets, thus excluding small-scale sustainable producers whilst land-grabbing in the global south in order to mass-produce drugs. This will be at the detriment of equitable food production and responsible agroforestry. The last thing this planet needs is Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness rolled into one.

It’s pretty rare to find a policy that would strengthen social justice and stop deforestation in one fell swoop. Drug policy reform – including a just transition from criminalisation to regulation – is one of them.

Clemmie James is a drug policy reform campaigner at Health Poverty Action.


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