The Amazon Basin is covered by nearly eight million square kilometers of tropical forest, which equate to an area more than twice the size of India. As a resource-rich forest, the Amazon is being plundered at an accelerating rate.
In 2021 alone, nearly 2 million hectares of primary forest — the most ecologically significant forests on Earth for carbon storage — were lost across the region, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), a network dedicated to monitoring deforestation in the Amazon. This marked a slight decrease from 2020, when around 2.3 million hectares were destroyed.
Government ministries in most of the five surveyed countries provide data on deforestation rates. However, these statistics are often outdated, and they are also based on methodologies that vary from country to country. For consistency, this report will use data from Global Forest Watch, an online platform that regularly monitors deforestation in each of our countries of study using a standardized methodology. Bolivia saw the highest levels of deforestation out of the five nations, according to Global Forest Watch. Between 2001 and 2021, the nation lost more than six million hectares of forest. This marked a 10 percent decrease in total forest cover since the beginning of the millennium. In 2021, it ranked third in the world among countries that recorded the highest levels of primary forest loss.
Most deforestation in Bolivia has been concentrated in its Amazon, above all in the Chiquitanía region, located in the southeastern department of Santa Cruz. Forest loss has also been a problem in the northern zones of La Paz and Beni departments; Madidi National Park, located in the northwest of La Paz; and at the northwestern border Bolivia shares with Peru.
Over the same time period, Venezuela lost 2.29 million hectares of forest, more than half a million of which was primary forest. Deforestation has been a major problem along the Orinoco River to the south of Venezuela’s Amazon, where 80 percent of the country’s tropical forests are concentrated.
Meanwhile, 902,000 hectares of trees were deforested in Ecuador, above all in the Eastern Amazonian provinces of Pastaza, Napo, Orellana, Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe. Around 15 percent of Ecuador’s Amazon has been deforested to date.
Over the past two decades, in Guyana, some 230,000 hectares of forest were destroyed, meaning deforestation rates have generally remained under 0.1 percent, far less than other Amazon countries. Most deforestation has been concentrated in the eastern Region Ten (Upper Demerara–Berbice) and southwestern Region Nine (Upper Takutu-Essequibo), which borders Brazil.
In neighboring Suriname, 212,000 hectares of tree cover were lost in the same period. The areas with the most damage consist of the Brokopondo Reservoir in the country’s northeastern region; the village of Baling Soela in the northern municipality of Centrum; along the northern Merian Kreek stream; and in the Lely Mountains, located to the northeast.
Deforestation across the region is driven by a number of environmental crimes. These include cattle ranching and the expansion of agribusiness, timber trafficking, coca cultivation, and legal and illegal gold mining.
The importance of these drivers varies from country to country. In Bolivia, forest fires ignited to clear land for farming stoke most deforestation. Most forest loss in Ecuador’s Amazon results from land being cleared for palm oil cultivation. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s, Suriname’s, and Guyana’s forests are most affected by gold mining.
In Bolivia and Ecuador, cattle and agricultural activities are the main drivers behind deforestation rates in both Amazonian countries. Coca cultivation and timber trafficking have also paved the way for forest degradation in these nations, unlike in Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana.
Across Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana, legal and illegal gold mining is the primary driver of forest loss in these countries. Although mining also contributes to deforestation in Bolivia and Ecuador, its impact is lesser there.
Cattle and the Expansion of Agribusiness in Bolivia and Ecuador
Cattle rearing and other agricultural activities accounted for some 84 percent of total deforestation in the Amazon Basin in 2020, according to a report from the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a consortium of civil society organizations that seek to promote sustainability across the Amazon.
In 2000, cattle and agriculture composed 800,000 square kilometers of the region. Over the next two decades, this area increased by 81.5 percent. The expansion can be explained by surging international demand for soy, beef, and palm oil. Much of this demand comes from Europe and Asia.
Small-scale agriculture – which refers to farming covering less than two hectares – industrial agriculture, and large-scale cattle ranching are driving deforestation across the Amazon. Trees are cut and burned for crops and cattle grazing in areas that extend beyond legal limits, or within protected reserves.
Fires to clear land often spread quickly and get out of control, such as happens in Brazil. “Where there’s cattle ranching and soybean farming, there’s fire,” Marcelo Coppola, a journalist from the environmental news organization Mongabay, explained. As a result, 169,000 square kilometers of forest have been incinerated annually across the Amazon over the last 20 years. This equates to the whole of Uruguay being burned down each year.
Slash and Burn Land Clearance in Bolivia
In Bolivia’s Amazon, the illegal clearing of forests with fire is one of the main drivers of deforestation. A “slash and burn” practice, known as “chaqueo,” is used. A lack of proper management, high temperatures, and strong winds mean these fires spread easily.
More than 120 major fires were detected in Bolivia between January and September 2020, according to MAAP. Fires have spread across the protected Noel Kempff Mercado National Park at the nation’s northeast border with Brazil, and the Chiquitania region, in the eastern department of Santa Cruz.
Aggressive agricultural expansion on both sides of the Bolivia-Brazil border means that the territory finds itself facing increasing pressure on two fronts. In Bolivia, particularly in the Santa Cruz department, the government’s decision to regularize lands claimed by farmers and landowners has led to more forest areas being cleared, laid claim to, and transferred to the hands of a few individuals. Brazil, for its part, has made Mato Grosso, the state bordering Santa Cruz, one of its agricultural capitals. The state is the largest Brazilian producer of beef.
In Bolivia, areas most affected by forest fires in Chiquitania are populated by settlers and interculturales (intercultural communities) that do not identify as a distinct ethnic group but claim to be a mixture of immigrants and locals. Alex Villca Limaco, communications secretary at the National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Peoples for the Defense of Territories and Protected Areas (Coordinadora Nacional de Defensa de Territorios Indígenas Originarios Campesinos y Áreas Protegidas – CONTIOCAP), revealed that some 1,500 families belong to intercultural communities that have settled in Santa Cruz to grow soy and raise livestock.
Agricultural activities and land grabbing, also known as land usurpations, often go hand in hand in the Bolivian Amazon. Numerous sources agreed that the latter occurred during the presidency of Evo Morales, which ran from 2006 to 2019.
Under Morales, the nation adopted a policy called the Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well (Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien) in 2012. This prohibited the conversion of forest into other uses. It also sought to prevent the expansion of the agribusiness frontier. However, at the same time, the former president paradoxically promoted the expansion of agriculture and cattle rearing into protected areas.
“This is just another tool to ensure the economy continues to grow,” Morales said in August 2019, when celebrating a large shipment of beef being sent to China. During his tenure, the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA), the body in charge of land reform in Bolivia, titled plots of land to develop agricultural activities. According to Fundación Tierra (Earth Foundation), an NGO that promotes sustainable rural development in Bolivia, these titles went beyond limits established by the nation’s constitution.
“The government granted titles in [protected] areas that should not be used for agriculture or cattle rearing,” said Eduardo Franco Berton, a journalist who has covered environmental crime in Bolivia extensively. This dynamic has driven deforestation since Morales was in power, and it continues growing today after Morales’ departure.
Other irregularities have also been reported. INRA has given land titles to rural communities that migrate from the highlands to settle in the Chiquitania region in the eastern department of Santa Cruz. In 2019, INRA allowed 69 rural communities to settle on 130,000 hectares of land that formed part of state-owned forest areas in Chiquitania. In these areas, communities work beyond legally permitted limits, felling expanses of trees to convert to farming. This has contributed to deforestation and is often driven by Mennonite communities.
Others have acted around legal requirements to claim land. Alcides Vadillo, regional director at the Fundación Tierra, revealed “[ghost] communities have been invented so land can be pursued.” He added that many of those who receive land titles sell plots to medium- and large-scale cattle ranchers and farmers. This has led to land trafficking and a large amount of land being owned by few individuals.
Palm Oil and Land Grabs in Ecuador
As in Bolivia, deforestation in Ecuador’s Amazon is mainly driven by agroindustrial interests. Sixty-five percent of land use across Ecuador’s Amazon is designated for pasture, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A lack of economic incentives for farmers discourages them from being sustainable and efficient in their practices, according to the UNDP. Meanwhile, the expansion of industrial agriculture has reduced possibilities for small-scale agriculture. As access to land has become scarce, the illegal grabbing of small plots has ramped up.
Agricultural interests often drive the unconstitutional eviction of communities from territories that have belonged to them for centuries. In many cases, intimidation and falsified documents are used to expel them from their homes. Otherwise, agricultural activities linked to land grabbing are fomented by judicial decisions and rulings issued by authorities.
Once the land is cleared, cattle are reared, or African palm oil crops are sown.
Carlos Mazabanda, field coordinator for Ecuador at Amazon Watch, said that palm oil production has affected the north of the nation’s Amazon region. The activity has maintained a heavy presence in the northern provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos.
Several protected forests in these provinces have been illegally invaded to sow palm oil crops, according to Mónica Navas, who was in charge of designing the Sustainable Amazon Project promoted by the Global Environment Fund (GEF). “We are talking about more than 56,000 hectares [invaded] to the north,” she said. “The Napo-Payamino I and II Protected Forest [with an area of 1,025 hectares] is totally appropriated, invaded.”
Money Trees in Ecuador and Bolivia
Illegal logging in the Amazon Basin often happens as a result of other environmental crimes, such as illegal gold mining, land grabbing, and agricultural development. Trees are also illegally felled to be explicitly trafficked. Harvested, transported, and processed in the Amazon, the timber is to be sold on international markets, including China and the United States.
Across the region, entrepreneurial criminal networks seek high-value, often endangered, species of wood. These include Amazon Rosewood (Dalbergia Spruceana), Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), and Cedar (Cedrus), which are all used to make furniture and musical instruments. They also source cheaper, lightweight woods like Balsa (Ochroma Pyramidale) to be used in the construction of wind turbines and surfboards.
Timber trafficking unfolds through three stages: harvesting, transportation, and “transformation.” First, cutters, or “corteros,” chop down trees illegally. Often these forests are outside of concession boundaries and in protected areas. Then, entrepreneurial criminal networks coordinate the transportation and laundering, or “transformation,” of the wood. Across the Amazon Basin, similar techniques are used to cover up the origins of illegally-sourced timber. Front companies and fraudulent paperwork disguise the origins of wood cut in prohibited areas, or in volumes above those authorized. Once the timber is laundered, it is sold on international markets.
Bolivia and Ecuador are home to some of the main hotspots for timber trafficking in the Amazon Basin.
In Bolivia’s Amazon, timber is illegally harvested in the Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando departments. Protected areas are commonly targeted. Madidi National Park, in the northeastern part of Bolivia along the upper Amazon river basin, and the central Amboró National Park have been pillaged. There, high-quality, resistant hardwoods like mahogany (known locally as “mara wood”) and rosewood (“tipa”) are extracted on behalf of entrepreneurial criminal networks.
Timber trafficking in Bolivia’s Amazon is also promoted by communities in areas where forest is converted into agricultural land. “This is partly due to Law 741 of 2015,” Fundación Tierra’s Alcides Vadillo explained. Through clearing plan forms known as Planes de Desmontes (PDM-20), communities clear up to 20 hectares of trees to make way for agricultural activities. The Authority for the Social Audit and Control of Forests and Lands (Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Bosques y Tierra – ABT) permits the sale of wood that is felled during this process.
However, a former journalist from the Bolivian news outlet El Deber said that communities often do not respect the 20-hectare limit. Instead, some get involved in timber trafficking and sell clearance plan forms (PDM-20) to timber mafias, which use the documentation to launder wood.
Once felled, the wood is laundered using fraudulent paperwork claiming it was harvested in legally authorized areas and quantities. Forest Origin Certificates (CFO) are frequently filled in with false data. This documentation may also be used to pass endangered, protected species off as wood that can be legally felled.
Timber is later moved on to cities across the Amazon region or to duty-free trading hubs. There, it is processed in sawmills owned and run by intercultural communities and Chinese citizens, according to Villca Limaco.
In Ecuador’s Amazon, timber traffickers have long sought high-value, endangered tree species. Cedar has been targeted for years. In 2011, the International Tropical Timber Organization reported up to 85 percent of Spanish cedar harvested in Ecuador’s Amazon was illegally sourced. However, as fine woods have become harder to come by, traffickers have focused on cheaper, fast-growing woods like balsa.
Balsa, like mahogany and cedar, has also been taken from Indigenous lands along the Pastaza and Curaray rivers, which cut through the central Amazonian province of Pastaza and Morona Santiago to the south.
Ana Cristina Basantes, a journalist who has followed environmental crime in Ecuador closely, confirmed this. She explained that illegal balsa harvesting has driven increased deforestation on lands owned by the Indigenous Achuar people, who live along Ecuador’s border with Peru. Between March and September 2020, some 20,000 balsa trees were cut down on a series of islands in front of the communities that live on the banks of the Copataza River, within Achuar territory.
When few trees remain, cleared land may later be used for agricultural activities, like African palm oil cultivation, ecologist Nathalia Bonilla said.
Some of the wood stays in the region for local use. Some is also sold in the form of furniture across Ecuador, including in the highland province of Azuay and Pichincha in the northern Sierra region.
However, it is more commonly moved on to neighboring Peru, via road or river. Experts in balsa trafficking revealed that wood from Ecuador’s Amazon is often sent downstream to the city of Iquitos, in Peru’s northeastern Loreto region. Officials have also detected traffickers using the Napo River to send illegally felled timber across the border, according to an investigation by Ojo Público.
Otherwise, it is transported overland. Mobilization guides provided by the Ministry of the Environment are filled in with fraudulent information, as happens in Bolivia. Drivers often carry more timber than specified in the paperwork.
The wood is then usually processed in sawmills across the border. There, timber traffickers hide behind ghost companies that flicker into existence and dispatch large volumes of wood in the space of just one or two years before disappearing.
The balsa boom has brought with it a wave of violence along Ecuador’s border with Peru. Loggers are often shortchanged in payment for their services, causing conflict. In addition, loggers are known to harass local women and girls, inciting further violence. In many cases, a lack of state control – mixed with fear of repercussions – leaves communities unwilling to denounce the violence. All of this insecurity is increasingly catalyzed by the flow of arms, munitions, and alcohol into local communities.
Coca Creeps Into Bolivia’s National Parks
While the Amazon regions of Ecuador and Venezuela see the sporadic appearance of small-scale coca plantations, most coca, the raw material for cocaine, is found in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
Unlike Colombia, coca cultivation in our countries of study is not a major motor of deforestation. However, patches of forest are cleared for coca plantations in Bolivia, meaning the activity has had some impact.
In Bolivia, Law 1008 of 1988 permitted coca crops to be grown legally across 12,000 hectares in the Yungas region of the La Paz department. In 2017, the government expanded this authorized zone to 22,000 hectares, covering the Yungas region and the Cochabamba Tropics, found in the north of Bolivia’s central Cochabamba department. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated coca crops covered 29,400 hectares in total in 2020. This suggests that at least 7,500 hectares are illegally cleared, with the coca grown there potentially used to manufacture cocaine. It is possible that this figure is much higher.
Although most coca crops in Bolivia are located in the Andean region, some plantations have been detected in protected areas across the Amazon. This includes in the national parks Madidi and Amboró. They have also been spotted in Apolobamba National Park, located to the west of La Paz, and Cotapata National Park in the department’s Yungas region.
In Bolivia’s Amazon, coca is processed in rural, remote areas, particularly in the department of Santa Cruz. There, trees are cut down to clear ground for clandestine airstrips that permit the entrance of chemicals, personnel, and supplies, as well as the export of drugs.
Actors Stoking Deforestation
A number of actors are involved in agricultural activities, timber trafficking, and coca cultivation across the Amazon Basin. They fall into four main categories: legal actors, entrepreneurial criminal networks, non-state armed groups (NSAGs), and cheap labor.
Entrepreneurial criminal networks sit at the top of the chain for each environmental crime. These are market-driven and motivated by the profits from the trade in timber, land, or drugs. Entrepreneurial criminal networks finance and orchestrate environmental crimes in the Amazon Basin, staying in the shadows while relying on the work of cheap labor. Such actors typically form loose networks dedicated to criminal activities like timber and drug trafficking. They wield the most influence and economic power in a given criminal activity.
Entrepreneurial criminal networks coordinate land grabs and land trafficking across the Amazon regions of both Bolivia and Ecuador. In Bolivia, land grabbing is often driven by politically powerful Brazilian and Argentine citizens, who have interests in agricultural activities. They subcontract cheap labor to open illegal roads connecting usurped lands with municipalities and cities.
Entrepreneurial criminal networks also coordinate and finance timber trafficking in the Amazon regions of Bolivia and Ecuador. These networks are usually overseen by bosses, or “patrones,” as in Colombia and Peru. In Bolivia, patrones have been identified operating in the municipality of Yapacaní, located in the northwest of the nation’s Santa Cruz department. They finance timber trafficking, subcontracting “corteros” (cutters), who are usually locals and Indigenous people in charge of sourcing, identifying, and logging wood across the region.
A Bolivian logger revealed there were at least five major patrones around Amboró National Park, in Santa Cruz, as of 2020. Armed guards working for them protect cutters and set up logging camps in national parks.
Another type of intermediary, known as a broker, travels between Amazonian communities in search of in-demand species of wood. Brokers buy illicitly harvested wood directly from Indigenous people or loggers working in the region. In Ecuador, some brokers work with local communities to harvest the species they seek. Others pressure and coerce local people to find, fell, and sell trees to them. Journalist Ana Cristina Basantes revealed that these intermediaries extort local communities, or pay them extraordinarily little for illegally chopped wood.
Brokers work with “transporters,” who move the wood onward in trucks or in boats. Blank mobilization guides or permits filled with irregularities are often employed.
In Bolivia, boats known locally as “callapos” are used by transporters to move wood along the Yapacani and Ichilo rivers, which connect Amboró National Park to the cities of Santa Cruz de la Sierra or Cochabamba, according to Alex Villca Limaco. Each trip takes them at least three days and pays up to $580.
A number of legal actors also facilitate environmental crimes across our countries of study. They may be members of local communities who have permits to log and farm but work lands beyond established legal limits and encroach on protected territories. These may also be legal enterprises or public entities that get involved in environmental crime. In some cases, they maintain loose ties to entrepreneurial criminal networks; in others, they work with the complicit agreement of government authorities.
In Bolivia, members of Mennonite and intercultural communities who have permits to fell trees and farm encroach upon protected lands. At a higher level, INRA has permitted land in constitutionally protected areas to be used for farming.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, some palm oil companies have been complicit in deforestation across the nation’s Amazon and beyond. According to journalist Ana Cristina Basantes, palm oil companies have taken over land belonging to local communities. The sowing of palm plantations not only devastates forests but pesticides used in palm oil production filter into water sources used by the communities, Basantes added.
As for logging, sawmills play an important role in covering up the illegal origins of timber extracted across the Amazon. While illegally harvested balsa wood can be passed off as legal in Ecuador, it is most often laundered with legally sourced timber by crossing the border into Peru. There, the illegal timber passes through sawmills, where its origins are disguised prior to legal export.
Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs)
In an environmental crime context, NSAGs work with entrepreneurial criminal networks to oversee the operation of criminal economies driving deforestation in the Amazon. NSAGs are clearly defined, organized criminal organizations, including militia and guerrilla groups. They are primarily funded by illicit activities. Such groups have four defining features: a known name, a defined leadership, territorial control, and identifiable membership. Unlike in Colombia, NSAGs do not appear to be involved in land grabbing or illegal logging in our countries of study. They are, however, involved in the drug trade in Bolivia.
A journalist who has covered Bolivia’s Amazon region extensively said that Brazilian groups such as the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) guard routes used to move cocaine out of Bolivia. Mongabay founder Rhett Butler and CONTIOCAP’s Villca Limaco agreed that NSAGs may also finance the clearance of land for coca crops and drug plane landing strips. In 2021, 46 clandestine airstrips were dismantled in Santa Cruz and Beni. Land in the Amazon being cleared to build runways for drug planes is increasingly happening in other countries in the region, including Peru, Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela.
Entrepreneurial criminal networks and NSAGs employ or threaten local people into providing the physical labor necessary for environmental crimes to occur. Socio-economically disadvantaged local people who make up this “cheap labor” usually get roped into environmental crime in our countries of study through a lack of economic alternatives, or because they are threatened into doing so. They provide manual labor for basic tasks such as felling trees, as well as planting and harvesting illicit coca crops. They may be employees – but not necessarily members – of criminal networks and NSAGs. They may also be contractors or independent workers who interact with criminal actors that operate further up the supply chain.
The cheap labor gains the least financially and sits at the bottom rung of the criminal ladder.
Land grabbing linked to farming often relies on the manual labor of local people known as “clearers,” who are employed to cut and burn trees before agricultural activities are set up. In some cases, local communities are paid by government entities to deforest their own lands. Navas, of the Sustainable Amazon Project, said that in Ecuador’s Amazon region “banks gave money for deforestation.” The Indigenous Secoya people of San Pablo in the Shushufindi canton of Sucumbíos province obtained a loan of $240,000 from the National Financial Corporation (Corporación Financiera Nacional – CFN).
While many participants in this criminal economy operate with impunity, governments are often punitive when Indigenous communities engage in deforestation. The Secoya people were fined $375,000, despite the fact that the state provided them with money to sow the crops. Members of the community were not penalized for cutting down native forest but for allegedly failing to comply with “established procedures.”
For illegal logging to occur, members of local communities usually form part of a labor force employed to find and cut down trees. This labor force is typically made up of “trackers,” or “monteros,” who seek out in-demand species of trees.
In Bolivia, cutters are largely members of local or intercultural communities. They are paid around $724 for extracting eight cubic meters of wood. Meanwhile, in Ecuador, local trackers and cutters may receive liquor, cigars, and money for their services. However, in some cases, they are not paid at all. Journalist Milagros Aguirre Andrade, who wrote a book on Ecuador’s timber trade, revealed members of local communities may be tricked into handing over their wood without being paid for it. In other cases, cutters can make up to $150 a day felling balsa trees in the region.
Cutters and trackers are not always local people. They may arrive from other regions or countries in search of work. Journalist María Belén Arroyo revealed that “colonos,” or “settlers,” from Ecuador’s coastal region migrate to the Amazon to work as loggers. Loggers from Peru have also invaded territories belonging to the Indigenous Yasuní peoples in the provinces of Napo and Pastaza, to source fine woods and balsa.
In the case of Bolivia, carriers, or “lomeadores,” also form part of this labor force. There, they move planks of wood to riverbanks for onward transport. They carry each individual load on their backs for up to three kilometers. Carriers are paid around 14 cents for each foot of wood carried per kilometer in Bolivia.
*Isaac Norris contributed reporting to this article.
InSight Crime has partnered with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security, and climate issues – to trace the environmental crimes and criminal actors driving deforestation across the Amazon. See the investigations.