Environmental Crime In Latin America: The Theft Of Nature And The Poisoning Of The Land

Editors: David Rodríguez Goyes, Hanneke Mol, Avi Brisman, and Nigel South
Publisher: London, UK: Palgrave, 2017. 313p.
Reviewer: Mark Ungar | October 2018

This book provides much-needed breadth and depth to the field of green criminology, which aims to challenge and broaden how we see crimes against the environment, which stand out from other crimes by their extent over both places and time – affecting lands and generations far beyond specific violations. Nowhere is the gap between a crime’s impact and its punishment greater than on environmental crime, where even the most serious violations are rarely punished. Environmental enforcement bodies lack the institutional support, personnel, training, funding and jurisprudence to enforce the laws, while states adopt policies of unsustainable extraction that further tear apart both their laws and their ecologies.

The book deepens all of these dimensions by applying them to concrete case studies throughout Latin America, a region of the world where the long-standing impacts of environmental crime are being met by vigorous and innovative responses, as this book shows. By building on a concept of such crime to include “all types of harm inflicted on the environment caused by human activity, whether or not there are obvious human victims,” the chapters of the book’s three sections together form a powerful, original, and empirically-rich critique.

In the first section, Sociological Analysis of the Theft of Nature, the authors highlight key themes that lay a foundation for the book. The first is the long history of environmental crime, stressing the centuries-long practices of unsustainable extraction. In a study of the agricultural irrigation systems in Mexico, Cleotilde Hernández Suarez says that the use of wastewater is the latest practice in a long history of human manipulation of the area’s watershed (page 17).  Eduardo Mondaca’s study of Chiloé, a resource-rich island in Chile’s south, also shows a relentless and unbroken plundering throughout history.

In the face of such destruction, nearly every author regards the law as its handmaiden. In his chapter, Gustavo Rojas-Páez even sees the situation as “alegal,” putting environmental destruction outside the law altogether. His study is of the case brought by the Wayuu indigenous people, who lives primarily in the arid La Guajira region of Colombia and Venezuela, over the harms on them by the Cerrejón, South America’s largest cast mining complex. In response, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) mandated precautionary measures to ensure access to clean water and food. But in addition to the resistance to its implementation, the court’s narrow ruling neglected the larger conditions of extreme poverty and dependence, which all but ensured a continuation of the exploitation.

Another dimension of the book, in fact, is how heavily environmental crime falls on the population. Hernández describes how farmers bore the economic and legal risks of food contamination resulting from the structures in which they worked, while Rojas-Páez mentions how, in the Putumayo region straddling Colombia and Peru’s Amazonia, “rubber extraction companies created security forces formed by enslaved indigenous youngsters” (page 59). Oil and mining companies no longer enslave people, but their control is far greater and local dependence far deeper. A more recent phenomenon of such violence is the sharp growth in the killings of environmental activists, which rose from 50 in 2002 to 197 in 2017, which was four people every week. Of the six countries with the world’s highest rates, four were in Latin America. Building on the book’s focus on violence and state criminality, in fact, Laura Gutiérrez-Gomez’s chapter reports that “80% of the human rights violations that occurred in Colombia took place in the municipalities that have a strong mining and oil extraction presence” along with the vast majority of displacement, attacks on trade unionists, and crimes against indigenous peoples (page 96).

A major source of that violence is of course the state’s own economic policy, a major theme of the book which this section introduces. In fact, relentless and unsustainable extractivism as the engine of the globalized economy is a major critique of green criminologists such as Stretesky. Gutiérrez-Gomez, focusing on mining in Colombia as one of the neoliberal economic policies that have dominated Latin America since the democratic transition in the 1980s, writes that the “wave of title-granting that took place between 2002 and 2010 was so overwhelming and fast-paced that it is commonly referred to as the ‘mining titles bazaar’” with “hundreds of mining titles … approved in national parks, indigenous reservoirs and territories held in common by Afro-Colombian communities” (page 95). Currently, indeed, up to 80% of the Amazon Basin is under a form of oil, mineral or other exploration concession.

Another theme that this section highlights is the repression and injustice with which the state imposes these policies. As discussed extensively in political science, in fact, the association between oil extraction, political violence, and authoritarianism – in countries like Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia, Angola – demonstrates the deep impact of extractivism. Taken further, the state itself can be regarded as a form of organized crime, as Rojas-Páez sums up, tapping into an important scholarship. As scholars such as Tilly and Thomson assert, the state itself is the successful effort by a dominant force to capture land, extract tribute, plunder resources, provide protection, and ally with local powers – just as any organized crime syndicate would do.

The second section, The Takeover of Land the Plundering of its Products, ramps up this political perspective. It starts with a chapter on the notorious, prolonged and corruption-plagued case against Chevron Corporation for its extensive oil pollution in Ecuador. By using the principles of political economy, and showing how wealthy actors can manipulate court procedure to squeeze out the most favorable terms possible, Matthew Yeager and Jade Smith support green criminology’s emphasis on the vast power of multinational corporations.

The Chevron case study is followed up by a lesser-known example of mega mining in Argentina’s Chubut province, which, as Ana Muriel Weinstock describes, spurred a social movement that challenged an economic system comprised of such environmentally destructive projects. In fact, mining has led to one of the fastest-growing and newest environmental movements in Latin America, with a network of activists around the region taking up actions from blockading roads to crafting legislation. This chapter strongly adds to the book’s focus on how society responds to multiple forms of ecocide. In this case, citizens in Chubut formed innovative and inclusive forums, such as a “popular judicial court” (page 155), to challenge both corporate and judicial power.

The following chapter, Hanneke Mol’s study of dispossession from palm oil cultivation in Colombia, lays out a broader and subtler but no less devastating form of extractive exploitation. Taking advantage of those property regulations, “unused” lands (baldíos), in the weakness of indigenous and Afro Colombian communities, she describes the spread of palm oil agribusiness in coastal Colombia. Picking up on the book’s focus on corporate power and citizen suffering, she describes the harm on biodiversity, soil quality, and other irreplaceable ecological elements. In discussing multinational production models of commodification, she also highlights the book’s focus on the gap between the globalized economy and local ecologies.

The chapter by David Rodríguez Goyes and Nigel South greatly expands this focus on the environment’s commercialization through a critical analysis of the parallel and supplementary practice of privatization. Dating from the colonial era, a powerful set of public and private interests have long taken private control over lands in the developing indigenous worlds. Using the case of Colombia, they explain how the police, which are officially responsible for the public good, have mutated into an arm of private corporations. Although this chapter could have more clearly described the specific practices of private police forces and militias, it shows the extent of the support by governments and international commerce.

The book continues its shift and expansion of green criminology’s paradigm through the third section’s comprehensive look at wildlife trafficking. Two chapters provide a devastating critique of the convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, (commonly referred to by its acronym CITES). Through detailed reporting on animal trafficking in Colombia, Ragnhild Sollund’s chapter shows that awareness by national organizations has not been able to stop the practice, and, like other authors, shows this crime’s links with other forms of transnational trafficking. Maccelo Robis Francisco Nassaro, in his chapter on wildlife trafficking in Brazil’s São Paulo state, describes the weakness in structural fragmentation of security forces that allowed the traffic to flourish. He also provides the critical point that because most such crimes carry a penalty of two years of imprisonment or less, which requires application of non-prison sanctions, hardly anyone is ever imprisoned. Judges and officials throughout the region, in fact, make the same complaint, citing the fact that very few people are actually imprisoned for even the most serious offense. The section’s third chapter presents a harrowing example of biomedical research in Colombia and Peru facilitated by extensive corruption at the local level, and attacks against environmental groups, in disregard for biodiversity; but, picking up on the book’s stress on how citizens can respond, with examples such as Solutions: People Permanent Tribunal (PPT). In this case, Ángela María Maldonado and Thomas Lafon describe how it also led to a concerted response, from stricter enforcement of laws on animal experimentation.

In its focus on its case studies and its connection to the core themes of green criminology, the book’s neglects several dimensions. One of the weaknesses of the book is a lack of analysis of provincial level politics and policies. Much environmental regulation has been decentralized to the regional level, where corruption and lack of enforcement are more severe and certainly vary greatly within countries. For example, Perú’s federal Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) has shown the low levels of compliance among regions on standards with even the most basic regulations, such as waste disposal. Much of the failure is rooted in this book’s theme. In the Amazon region, for example, pro-environmental officials struggle against powerful families, corporations, and political parties. Another dimension that the book could have examined more is the regional one, where inter-American efforts and institutes, such as the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) build cross-border cooperation to address many of the problems that the authors describe. Finally, the book needed to bring more attention to institutional responses. Latin America has some of the strongest ecological protection in the world, and as the damages from its weak implementation became clearer, governments are forming and empowering special environmental units among the police, prosecutors, and courts.

Those common themes would have only deepened this book’s contribution. By using green criminology to explain and expose the extent of ecological devastation, Environmental Crime in Latin America is an invaluable part of a multi-pronged effort to confront overlapping legal, political, and economic causes of this ongoing and organized criminality – the only way that it will be truly overcome.

Mark Ungar, Professor and Department Chairperson of Political Science, Brooklyn College

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