The vital connection between the Amazon basin and global security

April 12, 2024

Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali joins environmental experts to discuss threats to this indispensable natural resource

Key Takeaways:

The Amazon rainforest spans nearly 3 million square miles—the size of the entire continental United States—across eight countries. It’s home to 47 million people and about 10% of all of Earth’s species, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Sometimes called “the lungs of the earth,” the Amazon provides critical environmental benefits, such as generating rainfall, lowering the Earth’s surface temperature, producing oxygen, and absorbing carbon dioxide.

Yet nearly 20% of the Amazon has been lost over the last 50 years, which scientists warn is dangerously close to the forest’s “breaking point” of 25%—when it will collapse and transition from a tropical to savannah system. 

For Mohamed Irfaan Ali, the president of Guyana, that’s not just a burgeoning environmental crisis, it’s a potential threat to national security.

“When you look at the Amazon basin, the forest asset is not only the key to existence in the region, but it is key for the existence of humanity globally,” the president said at the sixth annual Security Challenges in Latin American Forum, held April 4 at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center. The event was organized by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, and the Wilson Center.

Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali
Mohamed Irfaan Ali, president of Guyana

Overuse of Natural Resources

Deforestation is one of the biggest issues threatening the Amazon, with cattle ranching the primary driver, said Meg Symington, vice president of global integrated programs at the World Wildlife Fund and a panelist at the forum. Deforestation is also ripe for crime, with a recent study finding nearly 94% of the 23.7 million hectares that were deforested in the last five years in the Amazon rainforest have been cut down for illegal activities, said another panelist, Sarah Gammage, director of policy, markets and finance at the Nature Conservancy.

“I think we have to recognize that the threat of organized crime and underground economy in the Amazon is growing,” Gammage said. “The Amazon has become one of the main sources and transit hubs in Latin America, where illegal products are produced, extracted, and traded. That includes cocaine, gold, timber, and other trafficking that goes on in terms of arms and human people.”

The seas face similar overuse. Seafood is one of the largest traded commodities in the world, said Sally Yozell, panelist and senior fellow and director of environmental security at Stimson, and yet the industry is highly unregulated, still using a paper-based tracking system. This leaves ample room for overfishing, misreporting of profits, and the decimation of endangered species.

Effect on Security

Beyond empowering crime syndicates, the environmental effects of deforestation and overfishing could cause forced migration, greater levels of poverty, and destabilization in the surrounding regions, Ali said.

The panelists offered a variety of solutions to the problem including:

  1. Environmental assets need to be considered as critical infrastructure.
  2. Policies must integrate development and security approaches more tightly to emphasize environmental protection.
  3. Amazon basin countries must increase collaboration and information sharing.
  4. Market structures must be reformed to incentivize legal, traceable, and sustainable agriculture and fishing practices.
  5. Law enforcement and park rangers must leverage technologies, such as drones and satellite imaging, to monitor, track, and crack down on illegal activity.

“We have the tools, technology, and scientific understanding, but it is a matter of political will,” said Sarah Glasser, panelist and senior director at the World Wildlife Fund. “I think we’re starting to see a real change in the way our policymakers understand these issues as a risk to national security.”