Drug trafficking is becoming a significant contributor to deforestation in Central America , according to a new multi-university study just published in the journal Science. To put it another way, drug use in the US is driving rapid deforestation throughout the rain-forests of the region — something to keep in mind for those that profess to having “green” values, while still partaking in recreational drug use.
The new research compiles and presents the rapidly growing evidence that drug trafficking is causing significant damage to the rain-forests of remote areas of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and other nearby countries. Drug trafficking in these regions is now functioning as one of the main causes of deforestation in these regions.
The traffickers in these regions are clear-cutting forests (often in protected areas) in order to make space for “clandestine landing strips and roads to move drugs, and converting forests into agribusinesses to launder their drug profits,” the researchers say. The majority of this activity appears to be at least partially in response to US-led anti-trafficking efforts, especially in Mexico, according to the researchers.
“In response to the crackdown in Mexico, drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them to the United States,” stated Kendra McSweeney, the lead author of the new paper and an associate professor of geography at The Ohio State University. “When drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them.”
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For example, the researchers found that the amount of new deforestation per year more than quadrupled in Honduras between 2007 and 2011 — the same period when cocaine movements in the country also spiked.
In the Science article, the researchers say deforestation starts with the clandestine roads and landing strips that traffickers create in the remote forests. The infusion of drug cash into these areas helps embolden resident ranchers, land speculators and timber traffickers to expand their activities, primarily at the expense of the indigenous people who are often key forest defenders.
In addition, the drug traffickers themselves convert forest to agriculture as a way to launder their money. While much of this land conversion occurs within protected areas and is therefore illegal, drug traffickers often use their profits to influence government leaders to look the other way.
McSweeney’s specialty is in researching “how indigenous people interact with their environment”, she would normally have nothing to do with the drug, but, in recent years, it has become impossible to avoid, she says.
“Starting about 2007, we started seeing rates of deforestation there that we had never seen before. When we asked the local people the reason, they would tell us: ‘los narcos’ (drug traffickers).”
Speaking about other signs of their presence, she states: “I would get approached by people who wanted to change $20 bills in places where cash is very scarce and dollars are not the normal currency. When that starts happening, you know narcos are there.”
And on the experiences of other researchers: “The emerging impacts of narco-trafficking were being mentioned among people who worked in Central America, but usually just as a side conversation. We heard the same kinds of things from agricultural specialists, geographers, conservationists. Several of us decided we needed to bring more attention to this issue.”
The new research was just published in the journal Science.
Image Credit: Rainforest via Flickr CC