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date: 10 April 2021

Environmental Crime in Latin America and Southern Green Criminologyfree

  • David Rodríguez GoyesDavid Rodríguez GoyesDepartment of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo; Antonio Nariño University, Colombia


Latin America has been the site of extensive raw material extraction ever since its colonization by Europeans in the late 15th century. Throughout this period, large-scale resource extraction and associated practices—agroindustry, deforestation, disposal of waste and dangerous substances, industrial fishing, mining, and wildlife trafficking—have been the cause of widespread environmental crime and social conflict in Latin America, harming ecosystems and human and nonhuman species. Environmental degradation has simultaneously triggered further crimes such as the establishment of illegal markets and the creation of monopolies that control natural resources. Furthermore, environmental victimization has heightened social conflict in Latin American societies.

Latin American criminologists began paying attention to environmental destruction and socioenvironmental conflicts in Latin America in the 1970s, but anglophone criminologists paid little if any attention to these criminologists for at least four decades. But the recent maturation of Southern green criminology has seen an increased focus of criminological research on environmental crime in Latin America. Latin American criminologists have exposed instances of primary, secondary, and tertiary green crimes in Latin America, and by so doing they have added depth to the formulations of anglophone green criminologists.

Southern green criminology is concerned with the sociocriminological study of environmental crime in the Global South, while being attentive to (a) the legacy of colonization and North–South and core–periphery divides in the production of environmental crime, (b) the epistemological contributions of the marginalized, impoverished, and oppressed, and (c) the particularities of the contexts of the Global South. Southern green criminologists are currently producing innovative academic knowledge about the causes of, consequences of, and potential responses to environmental crime in Latin America.


Latin America has been the site of extensive raw material extraction since its colonization by Europeans in the late 15th century (Galeano, 1997). Most experts point to the dynamics of large-scale resource extraction in Latin America as the main cause of primary, secondary, and tertiary green crimes since colonial times (Alimonda et al., 2017; Böhm, 2018, 2020b). In Latin America, green crimes take place in all the realms in which humans can degrade and destroy nature. The systematic and extensive destruction of Latin America’s natural environment has positioned Southern green criminology as the primary framework for the criminological study and interpretation of environmental crime in Latin America (Goyes, 2016, 2019, 2020). In the following sections, this article outlines the nature and significance of Southern green criminology.

The Contours of Southern Green Criminology

Southern green criminology is dependent on the North–South division as a central analytical category (Goyes, 2019). This division is invaluable in the study of “the historical impact of colonial and imperial practices” in instances of conflict and violence (Carrington et al., 2019, p. 72; see also Aas, 2013). The colonizing structure of North–South remains intact (see the section “Eras of Environmental Crime in Latin America”). That structure sustains an uneven distribution of political, economic, and epistemological power and capital between the Global North and the Global South (Goyes & Franko, 2019). This allows Northern countries to employ international legal instruments that regulate human interaction with nature (in terms of both physical resources and immaterial property rights; Goyes, 2017; Goyes & South, 2016), extract and dispose of environmental products from Southern countries even at the cost of environmental destruction and conflict (Goyes & Franko, 2019), and impose environmental practices on the South to the detriment of local practices (Goyes, 2018, 2019, 2020).

Similarly, the core–periphery conceptualization is a cornerstone of Southern green criminology. Core countries are those that have quasi-monopolies over financial institutions, media and communication systems, technologies, and weapons of mass destruction (Amin, 1997). Peripheral countries are those that generate raw materials and supply an “unqualified” labor force (Wallerstein, 2004), which core countries exploit. Because core countries monopolize financial institutions and establish global economic rules, product exchange between core and peripheral countries results in “a flow of surplus-value (meaning here a large part of the real profits from multiple local productions) to those states that ha[ve] a large number of core-like processes” (Wallerstein, 2004, p. 18). Despite the typology of core–periphery not seamlessly overlapping with the North–South typology, Southern green criminology uses the notions of North–South and core–periphery with their added conceptual content for its analysis of the global creation of environmental conflict.

Three epistemological insights are evident in this theorization. First, the daily dynamics of Northern and Southern countries are inseparably linked (Lessenich, 2019). Second, the implementation of global policies developed by Northern countries threatens the fulfilment of basic collective needs in Southern countries (Böhm, 2018; Brisman & South, 2013; Goyes & South, 2016). Third, as a consequence of these two, North–South divides are a key driver of environmental conflict and crime (Escobar, 1995; Goyes, 2019; Goyes & Franko, 2019; Goyes & South, 2016). As such, Southern green criminology is the sociocriminological study of the social dynamics around environmental harms and conflicts in the Global South and is attentive to the legacies of colonization, North–South and core–periphery divides, the epistemological contributions of the marginalized, impoverished, and oppressed, and the particularities of the contexts of the Global South (Goyes, 2019).

Southern green criminology is not a new phenomenon but a reactivation of a longstanding epistemological tradition existent in Latin America and other locations of the Global South concerned with the sociological study of environmental crime (see the section “Reclaiming and Reviving Southern Green Criminology”). There is a rich tradition of scholars from the Global South making insightful contributions to both Southern and green criminologies, and acknowledging their import provides a solid basis and justification for further developments in Southern green criminology.

Current Southern green criminology gains additional inspiration from postcolonialism and decolonialism (Escobar, 1995, 2006, 2007, 2016; Franko, 2019; Santos, 2009, 2014, 2018) and from globalization studies (Franko, 2019).

Postcolonialism provides a macro approach to the study of environmental crime in Latin America by delineating a division between North and South. In other words, it predicts the general trends and the broad constraining rules of the interaction between North and South, which is helpful when studying environmental matters. However, to move beyond generalities, Southern green criminology nuances the postulates of postcolonialism by pursuing two analytical directions offered by world-systems theory (Wallerstein, 2004) and globalization studies, respectively. First, it examines the diversity, positioning, role, and traits of the main actors—institutions—of North–South interactions (corporations, ethnic and class groups, interstate systems, and states). Second, it integrates the nuances added to the analysis of global environmental relations by globalization studies by “keep[ing] in mind not only the intensity of transnational connections, but also … paradoxes, unevenness, concrete modalities and disconnections” (Aas, 2013, p. 21). Incorporating institutions, as suggested by world-systems theory, and the flow of capital and surplus value, goods (e.g., environmental resources), individuals, and information (e.g., political influence, knowledge, and norms), as suggested by globalization studies, into a postcolonial analysis modifies a one-size-fits-all prediction to indicate that when global and transnational flows move through the local, a heterogeneous constellation of results emerges. Consequently, postcolonial and globalization studies are complementary: while the study of flows nuances the postcolonial macro perspective, the postcolonial structure establishes the framework in which flows move.

When it comes to the methodological operationalization of Southern green criminology, postcolonial and globalization theorizations point to abstract processes that may be difficult to use as conceptual bases for empirical research. But they also establish specific foci in aid of empirical investigation. Those foci of investigation are informed by the identification of three planetary scales. The national refers to the nation-state as the key analytical unit (White, 2011). The transnational signals processes of cross-border transference of capital, goods, individuals, and information with clear points of origin and destination (White, 2011). The global indicates the range of processes and influences that have a simultaneous impact on a planetary scale, for instance, the dynamics of “time–space compression” brought about by “the increasing speed of communication” (Aas, 2013, p. 7). Globalization studies offers the analytical tools needed to probe the complexity of the local impact of global and transnational flows of capital and surplus value, goods, individuals, and information (Castells, 2010; Eriksen, 2003). Keeping in mind the meaning and logic of those scales, specific foci of Southern green criminologists in their critical analysis of environmental crimes are, from micro to macro:


the impact of transnational flows from a local perspective;


the paradoxes and unevenness in the movement of flows at a national level;


beginning and end points of flows, in other words, the specific actors in specific locations that initiate and receive diverse types of flows;


international rules framing a specific instance/phenomenon of environmental crime;


the institutions involved in the phenomenon of environmental crime and their power distribution;


the political centers that establish the rules for the functioning of the phenomenon of environmental crime and profiting from it;


the cultures involved in the phenomenon of environmental crime and how they are in conflict;


the potential existence of quasi-monopolies of economic, epistemological, and political power by the political centers; and


the identification of what is core and what is peripheral.

Additionally, a particularity of Southern green criminology is that it grows out of the epistemological knowledge of those considered knowledgeless, that is, people most adversely affected by environmental crime such as Afro communities, Indigenous peoples, and campesinos. As such, it is amply inspired by decolonial work that has as its goal to “liberate the production of knowledge, reflection, and communication from the pitfalls of European rationality/modernity” (Quijano, 2007, p. 177). According to decolonial theory, freeing knowledge production can only be achieved by giving back its epistemological force to the people that colonialism has made subaltern (Santos, 2014) and “tak[ing] seriously the epistemic force of local histories and to think theory through from the political praxis of subaltern groups” (Escobar, 2003, p. 61). To decolonize, then, is to undo the actions and effects of colonialism by opposing colonial logics and extending the analysis beyond them (Escobar, 2003). Instrumentally, this can be done by showing how the worldviews and knowledge of the subaltern are valid alternatives to dominant colonialist ways of being (Santos, 2014).

Taking seriously the epistemic force of the subaltern does not mean rejecting the tools offered by the Western tradition. Just the opposite. There is a need to overcome the barriers imposed by colonialism that impede the generation of multicultural knowledge. To decolonize, Southern green criminological research combines Western knowledge with alternative epistemologies in a process where (a) the distinctive traces of colonial logics are acknowledged, (b) research is guided by the knowledge of the victims, (c) Western theory and concepts are affected by the knowledge, realities, theories, and understandings of the South, and (d) Western theory is used to help Southern scholars theoretically better understand their foci of analysis. The concepts, contours, methods, and theory of Southern green criminology respond to the historical dynamics of environmental crime in Latin America, as is explained in the next section.

Eras of Environmental Crime in Latin America

Castro Herrera (2017, p. 97) divides Latin American environmental history into three eras: the long human presence in the Americas, European control of the Americas, and the introduction of contemporary capitalism to the continent.

The Long Human Presence in the Americas

For almost 30,000 years prior to the European colonization of the Americas in the 15th century, a broad diversity of human interactions with the natural environment characterized Latin America. In addition to a rich biodiversity, highly sophisticated environmental cultures existed throughout the continent. Goyes et al. (2021a) refer to those environmental cultures as environmental ontologies because they deal with the form and reality of nature and support environmentally protective behaviors. According to Goyes et al. (2021a), these environmental ontologies had two main traits: “(1) they connected the wellbeing of humanity with the wellbeing of all other beings on earth, and (2) their cosmologies explained the importance of and considered sacred all components of nature, not only human beings” (p. 4).

While it is important to avoid romanticization and an uncritical portrayal of Indigenous peoples as idealized protectors of nature (Tsering, 2008) because they too engage in small-scale environmental destructive practices (see the section “Secondary Environmental Crimes in Latin America”), academic studies also demonstrate that Indigenous peoples retain a close spiritual relationship with nature and that their traditions include a wide-ranging repertoire of their own representations of nature that are conductive to protective behaviors (Goyes et al., 2021a; Verne, 2019). One of the most telling examples of an Indigenous environmental ontology that existed prior to colonization is the Barí communities in Colombia and Venezuela. For the Barí, all of nature is sacred; the Barí have an imperative to never destroy ecosystems and never commercialize their land (Goyes et al., 2021a). Consequently, the climate, flora, and fauna of the natural environment they inhabit remained constant for at least a millennium until colonizers began to clear land on a large scale for livestock grazing (Beckerman & Lizarralde, 2013).

European Control of the Americas

Galeano (1997) described the century following Columbus’s arrival in the Americas as one of “lust for gold, lust for silver” (p. 11). This epitaph signals the fundamental disruption of precolonial environmental ontologies and practices by the arrival of the colonizers and their exploitative mentality. Whether it was Columbus’s military campaign to decimate the Indigenous in Haiti, Cortés’s strategies to slaughter and dominate the Aztec empire of México, or Francisco Pizarro’s assassinations of Inca leaders in Peru, colonial empires undertook a massive “usurpation and plunder of native wealth” (Galeano, 1997, p. 14). In other words, the domination of Indigenous people was propelled by a desire to claim their lands and their natural richness and to use them as a free labor force to exploit the environment. Among the most powerful and effective mechanisms the conquerors employed during this era were armed force, the might of Catholicism, and noncapitalist tributary/social control systems, which included comunas, encomiendas, and resguardos, all which were forms of colonial reservations used to dominate Indigenous populations and exploit Latin American natural resources.

During the colonial period, Indigenous populations were decimated, the environment was destroyed, and millennia-old environmental ontologies were irrevocably altered. The social and environmental trajectories of most Indigenous peoples in Latin America follow the same script after the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. Indigenous groups that had relied on hunting, gathering, and cropping species such as corn, cassava, and coca were forced into labor in service of colonialism. Diseases brought to the Americas by the Europeans and the violence of the methods of production employed by the colonizers further decimated Indigenous groups. The practices of the Peruvian Amazon Company, owned by Julio César Arana, is an example of colonial brutality in the early 20th century (Goyes et al., 2021a). Indigenous Uitoto of Peru and Colombia were forced to collect rubber, killed as entertainment, and punished if rubber quotas were not met, by mutilation, being burned alive, or raped (Ramírez Mejía et al., 2012; Santamaría, 2017).

Along with the devastation to human societies, the environment was systematically destroyed. Crosby (2004) indicates that “the success of European ecological imperialism in the Americas was so great that Europeans began to take for granted that similar triumphs would follow wherever the climate and disease environment were not outright hostile” (p. 297). Western European conquerors, after having “opened new whole regions for immigrant settlement and exploitation” by decimating Indigenous peoples, transformed those open spaces into “an enormous and varied adjunct to European societies and economies” by the imposition of “crops and livestock pre-adapted to American environments” (Crosby, 2004, pp. xviii–xix). The transformation of the Latin American environmental landscape was so extensive that it began serving as a main supply for other imperial forces such as Great Britain, which “drew much and then more and more of its wood and food and almost all of its cotton for inexpensive clothing from the New World” (Crosby, 2004, pp. xviii–xix). The introduction of new animal and plant species, the unintended introduction of external diseases, and the eradication of native species, either through their commercialization or in the clearing of land for agricultural purposes, substantially transformed the Latin American environmental landscape.

Goyes (2020; see also Yepes, 2001) documents the way in which Spaniards brought a cattle culture to Latin America in which cattle husbandry was the domain of the colonizers and cropping was relegated to Indigenous populations and African slaves. Cattle husbandry was thus consolidated as a noble, dignified activity, symbolic of the superiority of the cattle owners/colonizers (Yepes, 2001) and the manual labor involved in cropping associated with servility and degrading work. This type of cultural representation determined the rapid increase of designating land for pasture, disregarding its deleterious environmental effects (Kalmanovitz, 1982).

Introduction of Capitalism in Latin America

The third era, on which the rest of this article focuses and which Castro Herrera (2017) describes as “shorter in time but with a higher intensity when it comes to environmental consequences” (p. 97), began in the 1870s with the imposition of capitalist forms of exploitation and continues today. As Latin American countries were gaining their independence in the 19th century and making liberal reforms, and because of the North’s ever-increasing demand for raw materials fueled by the Industrial Revolution, this third era saw the furthering of exploitative practices by colonizers, directed by foreign capital in collaboration with Latin American states and national oligarchies. Additionally, these practices were integral in the expansion of territory formerly not used for the extraction of raw materials. Importantly, Castro Herrera (2017, p. 98) warns that the current environmental crises in Latin America are due to the fact that the structures introduced during the second and third eras are still operative while those of the first era are disappearing to the detriment of Latin America. In other words, the current human–environment relationship in Latin America is characterized by capitalism, colonial logics, and extractivism, all of which are in direct conflict with precolonial environmental ontologies. As such, the current environmental ontology operating in most of Latin America resembles the dominant, modernist Western environmental ontology (Goyes et al., 2021a), which has three main characteristics: (a) it is anthropocentric (Sollund, 2012), (b) nature is not an entity with spiritual qualities but a “machine” humans can control and upgrade (Bauman, 2000), and (c) nature is entirely mundane, without any deeper meaning or connection to human community and quality of life (Hoyos Vásquez, 2006). Those traits are present in the examples of environmental crime provided in the following sections.

Types and Areas of Environmental Crime in Latin America

Green criminology does not depend on legal definitions of what constitutes crime in its outline of research interests. Rather, green criminology takes its lead from the harm perspective in which all sources of environmental destruction and victimization are included whether they are legally recognized as criminal or not. This characteristic must be highlighted as one of the key ways in which green criminology has changed how thinking and research on crime are done. By the adoption of the harm perspective, green criminology extends the scope of what criminology in general and criminological research in particular are all about. This definition of the scope of criminology has its origin in the broader field of critical criminology but has gained new force and relevance with the emergence of green criminology.

In the early 1970s Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1970) drew attention to the double standard of criminology in that racism and imperialism were overlooked because they were not legally defined as criminal, in effect calling for a revision of the definition of crime. Pearce (1976) and Davies et al. (1999) have further highlighted the fact that an action can be extremely harmful or undesirable though not punishable by law. Hillyard et al. (2004) showed that legally defined acts of crime are perpetrated far less often than harmful acts that are equally destructive but not legally considered criminal. It follows that if criminology depends on legal definitions of crime to determine its object of study, many of the most harmful acts committed against the environment will escape its radar. Consequently, green criminologists denominate as criminal all acts of substantial environmental destruction and animal victimization regardless of whether or not they are defined as such by law.

Another relevant conceptual tool for the study of environmental crime in Latin America is Carrabine et al.’s (2020) categorization of environmental crime as primary, secondary, and tertiary. In this model, primary green crimes are those “in which the environment and non-human species, as well as humans are harmed, damaged or degraded through human actions” (p. 479). Secondary green crimes are those that “arise from the exploitation of conditions that follow after environmental damage or crises (e.g., illegal markets for food, medicine, water) and/or from the violation of rules that attempt to regulate environmental harm” (p. 479). Furthermore, they set the stage for further destruction. Finally, tertiary green crimes are those committed by environmental victims as a result of their victimization (Carrabine et al., 2020; see also Potter, 2014).

The third relevant conceptual tool is White’s (2008) proposition of areas of environmental crime: brown crime—the disposal of waste, chemicals, and oil, and spills that harm air, land, and water; green crime—degradation and deforestation of wilderness and habitat destruction; and white crime—using technology to negatively affect nature, for example, genetically modifying organisms. Brown, green, and white areas of environmental crime are often interdependent. For instance, in mining, land is cleared, which reduces biodiversity, while simultaneously air, land, and water are polluted with the chemicals used in extraction, and technology is used to further this exploitation.

The interaction between types and areas of environmental crime is such that in all three areas all three types of crime are present, and consequently, in all three types of crime all three areas are present. The following sections present an overview of the most salient types of environmental crime present in Latin America, while also using the areas of environmental crime as a referent. Importantly, most studies highlight the colonial roots and the role of North–South divisions in the production of environmental crime in Latin America.

Primary Environmental Crime in Latin America

At play in the acts of direct degradation of the environment and of abuse of nonhuman species—primary green crimes—are legacies of colonial dynamics, the uneven distribution of power between the North and the South, and the demands of global capitalist economies. Primary environmental crime in Latin America occurs in all areas: brown, green, and white.

As an example of a brown crime (an act of pollution), Hernández Suárez (2017) describes water privatization and water pollution in Mexico: “the privatization of water gained momentum in the 1980s with the implementation of various neoliberal reforms,” but these dynamics were already present “from colonial times in the draining of the Valley of Mexico” (p. 17). Already in the 16th century, the Spanish combined the water systems of the Valley of Mexico and the Tula River subbasins to supply water to Mexico City to strengthen its position as “a centre of political and economic power” (p. 18). The colonialist logic of exploiting the periphery to supply the center continues today, as clean water sources in the Valley of Mexico and Tula River provide water for urban expansion and industry in Mexico City. This has depleted the source aquifers, and furthermore, contaminated urban and industrial waste water is being brought back to its source, where it is used for agricultural irrigation, thus further harming the environment (rivers, soil, atmosphere) and public health (Hernández Suárez, 2017).

Mondaca (2017) documents a similar process of pollution in the salmon industry in Chiloé, Chile, where fish feces with high percentages of antibiotics are polluting Chiloé’s lakes, rivers, and sea waters. Mondaca (2017) links that phenomenon to “extreme forms of colonial power [that] overlap and combine with a neoliberal extractive model” (p. 50). For him, the “colonialist personality is deeply ingrained in Chilean culture” (p. 36) to the extent that peripheral regions of Chile, in this case Chiloé, supply the needs of the political center, without regard for the ensuing environmental harms.

The main driver of green environmental crimes (destruction of biodiversity) is large extractive projects. Böhm (2020a), after examining 90 cases of human rights violations between 2011 and 2016 related to the activities of extractive companies in Latin America, found that all cases entailed significant biodiversity loss. Green crimes are substantially associated with deforestation for agriculture, mining, and the timber trade. For example, in Puerto Casado, Paraguay, the livestock corporation Yaguareté acquired almost 80,000 hectares in 2005 that it deforested for grazing livestock. This seriously threatened the region’s ecosystems and the wellbeing of the Ayoreos Totobiegosode, who traditionally inhabit the territory (Mannará, 2020).

White crimes (technology’s impact on nature) can be divided into two groups: extractions from ecological systems for technological development and ecological alterations by the use of technology. Regarding the former, the biotechnological industry has heavily relied on the natural diversity of Latin America for the development and testing of products. The case of epipedobates anthonyi (Anthony’s poison arrow frog) and its derivative epibatidine illustrates how biotechnology corporations and laboratories abuse nonhuman animals, thereby affecting Southern ecosystems and communities (find detailed accounts in Goyes, 2019; Goyes & Sollund, 2018). John W. Daly, an American biochemist specializing in the study of frog toxins, was well-known for his research on poisonous epipedobates anthonyi found in Central and South American rain forests. His intent was to identify the structure of epibatidine, the valuable compound present in frog toxins, to develop new synthetic drugs (Jacobson & Kirk, 2009). Over the course of his research, he collected thousands of frogs in Ecuador. In 1991, Daly and his team finally identified the structure of epibatidine (Daly et al., 1993; Garraffo et al., 2009). Epibatidine is being studied in many pharmaceutical laboratories in an effort to develop new painkillers (Jacobson & Kirk, 2009). However, the epipedobates anthonyi is now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “nearly threatened” because of agrochemical pollution and trafficking for medical purposes (IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, 2019).

One of the most visible technological alterations of nature is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2010, Brazil and Argentina were ranked second and third, respectively, in a list of countries growing biotechnology (GMO) crops (Clive, 2013). When farmers are dependent on biotechnology corporations for their raw cropping materials and the market dictates which products the corporations will commercialize, the diversity of products planted is much smaller than it would be were farmers independent. This makes crops more vulnerable to pests (Zedan, 2005). Furthermore, planting the same crops in the same location for successive years exhausts the soil, affecting ecosystems and biodiversity (Kim, 2010).

Secondary Environmental Crimes in Latin America

Secondary green crimes are those that are enabled by primary green crimes. From a Southern perspective, there are three subtypes of secondary crimes: (a) illegal actions that rely solely on primary green crimes, (b) harmful actions that take advantage of the situation created by primary green crimes, and (c) actions that enable primary green crimes.

Illegal Actions That Rely Solely on Primary Green Crimes

Wildlife trafficking in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, is an example of the first subtype. In São Paulo, “authorities uncover an average of 30,000 illegally caught wild animals every year” (Nassaro, 2017, p. 245). Impoverished individuals who are familiar with the habitats and behaviors of animals capture them to supply the trafficking chain (the primary crime). Following the initial abduction, the animals are illegally transported to middlemen, who then further transport the animals thousands of kilometers to the city of São Paulo where they are sold at illegal, “rolling markets” (Nassaro, 2017, p. 250). Transporting and selling wildlife, which are illegal, are secondary green crimes because they depend on the primary crime of animal abduction (for a comprehensive study of the illegal wildlife trade in Colombia, see Sollund, 2017b, 2019).

Harmful Actions That Rely on the Situation Created by Primary Green Crimes

One of the most dramatic examples of this type of crime is the sexual exploitation of women at sites of natural resource extraction. Ruiz (2020) has documented the sex trade in the Ecuadorian province of El Oro where women are used for adult entertainment of men who work in the international banana industry. Likewise, in the Guyanese mining industry, local Indigenous women are regularly forced into sex work. Not only are they raped by the men working in the industry, they are also vulnerable to AIDS (Ng, 2008, p. 46).

Actions That Enable Primary Green Crimes

Greenwashing is one of the most insidious examples of this type of secondary crime, and public relations is the primary tool corporations use to this end (MacManus, 2016). Greenwashing both profits from the conditions created by primary green crimes and is functional for their continuation. Budó (2017) reports on a 2016 study in Brazil in which the 25 most consumed vegetables were tested for toxins found in herbicides and pesticides used in agricultural production. Two hundred and thirty-two different toxic elements were identified. Such high use of toxic substances in cropping poses a risk to human and nonhuman animal life and damages biodiversity. Indeed, 1% of the vegetables tested contained highly poisonous components. In spite of these findings, the National Agency for Sanitary Surveillance (ANVISA) did not recommend banning even the most poisonous products used in vegetable production. Budó (2017) also found that in addition to influencing the content of official reports, corporations used national media campaigns to decrease the visibility of the harms of the agrotoxics they used and to exaggerate the societal benefits of agribusiness.

Tertiary Green Criminality in Latin America

Tertiary green crimes are those committed by environmental victims in response to their victimization. There are three subsets of tertiary environmental crimes in Latin America and most regions of the Global South. The first subset encompasses the further environmental destruction by environmental victims because of their own environmental victimization. These are crimes in which the direct perpetrators of green crime “are confronted with reduced or no other means of survival” because of previous environmental victimization (Goyes & Sollund, 2016, p. 97). For instance, the Ticuna of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru poach animals to pay back their loans to non-Indigenous Colombian and Peruvian merchants. But they are caught in a “debt system” in which the high interest rates make it almost impossible for them to ever pay back their debts (Revenga, 2006), and the only benefit they derive from the arrangement is “the possibility of buying some kilos of sugar, rice or oil” (Riaño Umbarila, 2003, p. 65). This practice dates back to colonial Portuguese and Spanish merchants and traffickers who forced Indigenous people to take part in the extraction of animal wildlife (fish, and live mammals and their skins) and timber (Riaño Umbarila, 2003).

The second subset of tertiary green crime is the harm allegedly created by victims of environmental crimes when fighting the circumstances that produced their victimization. It is almost always interlinked with the third subset, the crimes corporations and states commit when repressing environmental victims who have mobilized. Because green criminology considers harm as a central indicator of crime, it primarily focuses on the acts that most significantly impede human and environmental rights. Consequently, Southern green criminology, without denying that in some instances protesters cause harm, focuses on the repression of environmental social movements because repression is a tool that creates harm in and of itself and enables the continuation of environmental destruction.

The social and environmental mobilization against mega-mining in Chubut in the Argentinian Patagonia is a clear illustration of the intersection of the second and third subsets of tertiary green crimes (see Weinstock, 2017; for another example, see Vegh Weis, 2019) with its cycles of environmental victimization, mobilization, and repression that are an integral part of environmental destruction in Latin America. The inhabitants of Chubut have suffered the impact of mining, which began in the colonial era, for centuries. However, when in 2000 the multinational corporation Meridian Gold purchased the El Desquite mine for a mega-mining project to extract gold and silver alloy, residents of the town of Esquel decided to actively resist, claiming that the company had “contamin[ated] the rivers with cyanide … during preparatory and exploratory operations” (Weinstock, 2017, p. 145). In their protests, residents of Esquel relied on the judicial system, through mechanisms such as a writs of protection, and traditional activities such as petitions, theatrical street performances, and demonstrations. Additionally, the Indigenous Mapuche used the momentum of the movement to demand that the Benetton Group return their ancestral land. They had long suffered

poverty … , lack of potable drinking water, prolonged desertification [of their traditional lands] over the last decades, … being forced onto infertile, stony, sandy land and the dispossession of their land that had taken place during the ill-named Conquest of the Desert.

(Weinstock, 2017, p. 147)

Most orthodox criminologists would focus on the Mapuche reclaiming their land from Benetton, which was defined by Argentinian law as a crime of property invasion. Indeed, the Mapuche were accused of terrorism by a criminal court judge, who declared that “the actions of … [the Mapuche] directly affect the interests of the Nation, up to the point of putting security at risk” (Weinstock, 2017, p. 148). In contrast, Southern green criminologists would focus on the repression of the environmental activists, both residents of Esquel and Indigenous protesters, by state control agencies such as criminal courts, prosecutors, police, and paramilitary forces.

When it comes to tertiary green crimes in Latin America, of central concern to Southern green criminologists is the repression of environmental activists, including Indigenous groups, demanding the protection of ecosystems and the fair distribution of land, using pacific means. The response is often heavy handed, involving police, military, and paramilitary force directed against the protesters (Goyes & South, 2017b). Of all homicides of environmental activists in the world, 40% take place in Latin America (Forst, 2016), and Indigenous persons comprise 40% of all victims of homicides of environmental activists around the world (Global Witness, 2015). Without environmental activists, the harms inflicted by the perpetrators of primary and secondary green crimes would steadily increase. The importance of environmental activists, the high rates of violence committed against them, and the individual and community suffering that their repression creates makes understanding the dynamics of the third subset of tertiary green crimes in Latin America particularly important for Southern green criminologists.

Reclaiming and Reviving Southern Green Criminology

Endemic among criminologists is the widely held assumption that green criminology is the domain of anglophone green criminologists. However, both in the Global South and in the nonanglophone Global North, criminologists have produced valuable environmental criminological work sensitive to the powerless and marginalized, attentive to the crimes of the powerful, and with an emphasis on speciesism and the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples long before the term “green criminology” was used (Goyes & South, 2017a; Sollund, 2017a). The Latin American Critical Criminology Group of the 1970s is responsible for much of this work. It called for the development of a Latin American criminology, as opposed to a criminology imposed on Latin America by Northern criminologists (Aniyar de Castro, 1987)—a twist that is significant for the field of criminology, as it preceded current calls for southernizing criminology (Carrington et al., 2019). del Olmo (1975), prominent in the Latin American Group, pointed out that the structural violence experienced in the Global South was a product of the violence exerted by developed countries on underdeveloped ones. In other words, the North fueled violence in the South. Consequently, del Olmo (1981) insisted, “the definition, study and control of criminality must respond to the socioeconomic development of a given society” (p. 254). She went on to assert that “in order to develop criminology in Latin America and concretely to prevent violence, the first thing that must be done is to know the reality in which one is living” (p. 23). Her prognosis was to replace the “hegemonic paradigm” of the North with a Latin American “revision of the conceptual, methodological and technical tools … so that they offer a radically different way of defining, studying and controlling our criminality” (p. 254).

Building on del Olmo’s position, the Latin American Critical Criminology Group consolidated its purpose during its fourth conference held in Havana, Cuba, in 1987, where the necessity of “a Latin American criminology that is politically based in the contemporary reality of the region, with a Latin American point of view, principles, and solutions” became apparent (Dod & Shank, 1987, pp. 114–115). Specifically, the Group took issue with Western cultural imperialism, which, as with any other form of foreign domination, hindered true local liberation, and more specifically the development of a criminology attuned to local realities. Members of the Group asserted that the analysis of criminalization, social control, and harm production in Latin America should be developed “within the material and historical conditions existing in Latin and Central American societies” (Shank & Dod, 1987, p. vi).

One of the subprojects identified by the Group was to examine “the purely symbolic nature of the law” in the area of environmental crime (Aniyar de Castro, 1987, p. 12). As part of the “White Collar Environmental Crime in Latin America” subproject, Latin American criminologists from Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela produced more than a dozen full reports on environmental issues. Arreaza de Márquez and Burgos Finol (1981) published one of the most impressive reports, anticipating several green criminological insights that have been taken up by current green criminologists. These scholars argued that ecological delinquency was a modality of white-collar crime that had serious repercussions for the life and wellbeing of communities. They also defined ecological white-collar crime as “a series of injurious actions, felt by the contemporary collective conscience as harmful … produced by the degradation and the destruction of nature … much of which is not unlawful” (p. 39).1 Using the case of Venezuela in the 1970s, they concluded that governments, in collusion with corporations, made every attempt to hide the criminal nature of environmental destruction. They documented how Venezuelan environmental legislation was more symbolic than effectual; corruption ensured that administrative sanctions were rarely enforced and corporations remained unpunished. In addition, they found that in most cases the individuals being fined (middle-rank corporate employees) were scapegoats and not the main perpetuators of environmental harm. At the time of their writing, no environmental crimes were included in the Venezuelan penal code, and they rightly anticipated that any such inclusion would make no difference because of the classist and selective nature of the criminal system.

Arreaza de Márquez and Burgos Finol (1981) warned that Latin American society lacked an understanding of the structural causes of environmental crime. They also located the North–South divide at the heart of environmental harm: in order for “contemporary industrial societies to survive at their current rate of consumption, it will be necessary to exploit and plunder nature in already impoverished nations” (p. 56). A few years later, del Olmo (1987, 1998) analyzed the war on drugs being fought by the United States against marijuana and coca production in Latin America, and like de Márquez and Finol, she rejected orthodox analyses that focused on the crimes involved in drug production and trafficking, and rather studied the harms caused by the United States’ war on drugs. She identified ecocide and biocide as the main environmental harms produced by the U.S.-led war. She further qualified the harm as eco-bio-genocide, the widespread militarized destruction of the environment and the environments of local populations. It had already been well documented by that time that both paraquat and glyphosate, fumigants used to eradicate drug crops, were lethal for flora, fauna, sea life, and humans. As fumigations were administered indiscriminately, they also affected food crops, creating a food crisis. Del Olmo denounced eco-bio-genocide as a type of transnational criminality perpetrated by the United States against Latin America, its environment, and its people. The force of the United States’ discourse about the need for a war on drugs as a preventive measure and the lax nature of Latin American environmental laws were further facilitating circumstances. The North–South power imbalance was even more clearly manifested in the fact that while the United States did not allow the use of those chemicals on its territory, it promoted their use in Latin America.

There are many more examples of Latin American green criminology from the 1970s to 1990s, but the point is clear: in Latin America, and likely in other parts of the Global South, criminologists have for decades been employing concepts such as greenwashing and theoretical frameworks such as the sociology of denial, a harm perspective, a green cultural criminology, and a multiscalar analysis only adopted by Western green criminologist much laters.

Contemporary green criminologists have been deliberately blind about the site of production of criminological knowledge and have ignored their Latin American predecessors. This blindness has not only meant that work has been unnecessarily duplicated, but it has also caused an epistemicide. Nevertheless, the encouraging effect of recalling the Southern and green criminologies that existed in earlier decades is evidence that the Global South is a fertile field for the production and development of the necessary knowledge. This article is intended to incentivize the continuation of the Southern green criminology inaugurated by the Latin American Critical Criminology Group in the 1970s by presenting the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological frameworks of this academic orientation for the study of environmental crimes in Latin America.

Production and Development of Contemporary Green Criminology in Latin America: Further Reading

Southern Green Criminology: A Science to End Ecological Discrimination, by David R. Goyes (2019), provides a solid theoretical, conceptual, and methodological framework for the study of environmental crimes and conflicts in the Global South. This book gathers the insights of 8 years of research that began with Goyes’s initial proposition for a Southern green criminology.

Towards Global Green Criminological Dialogues: Voices From the Americas and Europe, a special issue of International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy edited by David R. Goyes et al. (2019b), is a collection of peer-reviewed texts produced by scholars from several Latin American countries, some of which were written in cooperation with European colleagues, about environmental crime, environmental conflict, and justice. This special issue aims at opening up dialogue and initiating collaboration between South and North. This special issue is also available in Spanish in the journal Critica Penal y Poder (Goyes et al., 2019b).

Environmental Crime in Latin America: The Theft of Nature and the Poisoning of the Land, edited by David R. Goyes et al. (2017), is the first green criminology text to focus specifically on Latin America. It is a collection of chapters about a variety of environmental crimes in Latin America. One of the strengths of this book is that the authors have diverse disciplinary backgrounds, thus introducing innovative tools for the analysis of environmental crimes.

Introducción a la criminología verde: Conceptos para nuevos horizontes y diálogos socioambientales [Introduction to green criminology: Concepts for new socioenvironmental horizons], edited by Hanneke Mol et al. (2017), is the first Spanish-language book about green criminology. It provides Spanish-speaking readers with the basic tools for the development of criminological studies about environmental crimes.

The Politics of Palm Oil Harm (Mol, 2017) presents a judicious analysis of the complexities, contradictions, and paradoxes of environmental harm in Latin America, by focusing on the issue of palm oil monocultures in Colombia. The book is based on extensive fieldwork in Colombia and includes deep theoretical reflection. This book is an excellent example of the ethical and methodological considerations foreigners must take when researching environmental crime in Latin America.

Criminología verde en México (also available in English as Green Crime in Mexico), edited by Inés Arroyo-Quiroz and Tanya Wyatt (2018a, 2018b), focuses on several instances of environmental crime in Mexico. It contains cases ranging from deforestation to ethnocide, mining, and wildlife trafficking.

Empresas transnacionales, recursos naturales y conflicto en América Latina: Para una visibilización de la violencia invisible [Transnational corporations, natural resources and conflict in Latin America: The visibilization of invisible violence], edited by Maria Laura Böhm (2020b), is a collection of essays with a focus on corporate crime and how it creates social conflict and environmental destruction in Latin America.

Ecología política Latinoamericana: Pensamiento crítico, diferencia latinoamericana y rearticulación epistémica [Latin American political ecology: Critical thinking, Latin American difference and epistemic rearticulation], edited by Héctor Alimonda et al. (2017), is a two-volume book that presents the state of the art about Latin American environmental thinking.

“Green Activist Criminology and the Epistemologies of the South” (Goyes, 2016) contains the initial proposition for the current Southern green criminology framework. It is a theoretical article about the role of criminologists vis-à-vis suffering and degradation, and how cooperation with environmental victims can improve understanding of the social dynamics that produce environmental crime.

“Toward a Green Cultural Criminology of the ‘South’” (Brisman & South, 2020) provides a conceptual framework that combines cultural criminology and Southern green criminology, offering tools to study representations of the environment in the Global South and their relevance in the protection and destruction of nature.

“Responses to Wildlife Crime in Post-Colonial Times: Who Fares Best?” (Sollund & Runhovde, 2020) is a peer-reviewed article that uses the tools of Southern green criminology for an analysis of the crime of wildlife trafficking. This is an ideal example of how to apply the concepts and theories of Southern green criminology to the study of a specific instance of environmental crime.


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  • 1. The Latin American Critical Criminology Group was undoubtedly influenced by the ideas of Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1970).