Environment and narcotics trafficking in Brazil


The case of Rondônia
Drug penetration


Author: L. N. ELUF
Pages: 21 to 25
Creation Date: 1992/01/01

Environment and narcotics trafficking in Brazil

L. N. ELUF Prosecutor, State of Sao Paulo; Consultant, Secretariat of Justice and Defence of Citizenship; former member of the Federal Council on Drugs, Sao Paulo, Brazil


This study of the State of Rondônia in Brazil sheds light on how and why the cultivation of illicit narcotics crops and drug trafficking are affecting non-industrialized regions. It also highlights the negative impact of such activities on tropical ecosystems and human population.


The scourge of drug abuse and trafficking has become global in scope, with wide variations in the characteristics of drug production and use from country to country. Generally, the raw material used in the production of narcotics is cultivated in developing countries, providing an effective, though illicit, way of escape from the absolute poverty to which a large proportion of their population is condemned.

Most Latin American countries have been overwhelmed by a multitude of apparently insoluble economic problems, some of them due to the production of psychoactive drugs by indigenous peoples who were accustomed to the controlled use of drugs long before the European invasion, especially in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Historical and cultural factors, together with favourable soil conditions, have encouraged the cultivation of coca leaf in the Andes and marijuana and epadu *in the north and north-east of Brazil. The international drug trafficking network then smuggles the drug to Europe and the United States, usually through Brazil.

A more detailed examination of the situation in Rondônia, a region in the north of Brazil, will reveal how and why those illegal activities are reaching more and more alarming levels in non -industrialized regions, and

*Type of drug cultivated in the Brazilian Amazon region, similar to Cannabis sativa. highlight the negative impact on the populations involved and the environment.

The case of Rondônia

The State of Rondônia, completely enclosed by the Amazon rain forest, was created in 1981. It had been considered national territory until that time, directly administered by the federal Government. It covers 238,379 square kilometres, and has a population of about 1.5 million inhabitants, according to data provided by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. The capital is Porto Velho.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the granting of incentives to clear the forest led to unsuccessful agricultural settlement projects that caused untold harm to the environment and to the local Indian population. At present, 30 per cent in the land in the State is deforested, of which only 20 per cent is used for agriculture. The remaining land is unused, and might well turn into a desert. The lumber industry is still the main industry of the State, but the proportion of its proceeds accruing to local workers or to public funds is insignificant.

Extraction activities are exhausting the mineral wealth of the soil. Mines that had at one time produced 2.5 kilograms of gold a day had an average daily output of 30 grams in 1991. According to the Federal Police Department, the majority of the 9,000 dredgers registered with prospectors are now used solely for narcotics trafficking and money laundering.

Cassiterite, usually found on the banks of the local rivers, is also exploited. To extract it, the prospectors excavate the slopes at the edge of the river, transforming the native vegetation into a gluey mud that pollutes the waters.

The total damage caused by these predatory activities is increased by the illegal trading of most of the minerals extracted. The wealth generated benefits neither the unskilled workers, nor the State treasury, nor the Federal Government; it is clandestinely and systematically smuggled to other countries. For example, according to the Rondônia Extractors Union, 320 tonnes of cassiterite produced in the State are smuggled as contraband each month to Bolivia.


Many migrants arrived in Rondônia during the 1970s and 1980s, tempted by the agricultural projects of the federal Government, by the dream of easy money from gold and cassiterite exploitation, and by the hope of land grants from the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. The inflow, which peaked in 1986, was estimated at

200,000 a year. With an illiteracy rate of 57.5 per cent, with no professional qualifications, and coming from all parts of Brazil, the migrants had a decisive influence on the development of the State.

Once the mineral resources that had attracted them were almost completely exhausted, their expectations of quick enrichment gave way to frustration. Unable to adjust to low-paying unskilled jobs, they became a marginal population with no prospect of work. There was no agriculture or cattle-raising, and no manufacturing industry had been developed. Drug trafficking therefore arose as a clear option.

Drug penetration

Social and cultural degradation is closely linked to the use of and trafficking in drugs. In Rondônia, through systematic destruction of the environment, a lush tropical landscape was transformed into a barren wasteland, leading to a breakdown in the traditional moral and social standards of the local population, as well as growing chaos and lawlessness. The life of the Indian population, which suffered in every way from the encroachments of "civilization", was permanently disrupted. Tribes previously isolated from the rest of the country were caught up in the ordeal of change, and in some cases were decimated by it. In the countryside, people who had led degnified lives until the migratory invasion were overwhelmed by deep and widespread misery, and corruption, prostitution and drug trafficking were also beginning to undermine their communities.

The State lacks the resources needed to provide basic services to the population. Because of the shortage of public schools, it is estimated that more than 120,000 students did not have classrooms in 1991. In addition, the lack of basic sanitation causes a high level of infection and death through water-borne diseases.

The Federal Police Department of Rondônia has only 45 officers in P6rto Velho, 20 of them in administrative functions. In 1991, only 13 officers were patrolling the 1,354-kilometre-long border with Bolivia. Thus, as Bolivia is one of the greatest producers of coca leaf in Latin America, the State of Rond6nia provided ideal conditions for smuggling the drug into Brazil.

Drug trafficking has become a threat to entire populations. Likewise, the lack of hope for a better life and the degradation of the local Indian culture has turned the use of drugs into a means of escape from reality for a large number of people. Although drug use is against the law, drug addicts in Rondônia are not arrested, simply because there are not enough prisons for them.

Indians, corrupted by unscrupulous lumbermen, are also being used in drug trafficking, usually along the Madeira river route bordering some Bolivian cities. In some cases they receive small rewards of food and medicines as payment; in others, they are reportedly enslaved by the traffickers if they refuse to cooperate.

The problems relating to drug abuse and trafficking in the State of Rondônia may be summed up as follows:

  1. Massive and disorderly migration, without the necessary local infrastructure;

  2. River pollution, mainly of the Madeira and the Candeias, by tonnes of mercury, burnt oil and the refuse of cassiterite exploitation that poison the fish and contaminate drinking water;

  3. Lack of appropriate medical care and medicines needed to

combat diseases caused by destruction of the local ecology;

  1. Devastation of the forest and sterilization of the soil by fire;

  2. The invasion of Indian and forest reservations, and the

corruption of Indian leaders by lumbermen and prospectors;

  1. The abandonment of Indian populations by the National Foundation for Indian Support;

  2. Condemning children and adolescents with no formal or

informal education to live on the streets from marginal activities;

  1. Insufficient material and human resources;

  2. The almost universal involvement of the population in the drug trade, including the participation of prominent politicians and other members of the economic elite.


The continuous degradation of a magnificent region of Brazil cannot be attributed solely to human greed and drug trafficking. The situation in-Rondônia is the result of a poorly planned land use policy, abandoned before it was completed and based on the theory of deforestation as a way to ensure territorial dominance. This led to the destruction of part of the rain forest and of the way of life of the demoralized Indian communities living there, leaving a disastrous ecological imbalance and all the attendant ills described above.

The reckless deforestation of the region should never have been allowed to happen. It has caused a sharp rise in the incidence of infectious diseases, blighted the landscape and made the heat unbearable, while exhausting the natural resources and corrupting the cultural and moral standards of the native population. A region in its early stages of development was thrown open- to international drug traffickers, thus exposing Brazil and the rest of the world to the devastating effects of rampant cocaine abuse.

The social and economic recovery of the State of Rondônia can only be brought about by the regeneration of the environment, by the restoration of its biological equilibrium, by the establishment of vast ecological parks and Indian reservations, and by the re -creation of public health standards. Only then will success be achieved in the fight against drug trafficking, and the other States of Brazil be spared a similar fate.