As Drug Traffickers Move In, Tropical Forests Fall

Deforestation in Central America goes hand-in-hand with narcotics operations, which replace forests with airstrips, roads and money-laundering farms

Narcotics operators are responsible for this stretch of deforestation, locating in a protected areas in Honduras. Photo: Robert Hyman

Drug trafficking endangers human lives and erodes communities. Now, new research published in the journal Science shows that it also impacts the environment, too.

In Central America, drug traffickers (mainly dealing in cocaine) clear cut swaths of rainforest—including within protected areas—to facilitate their illegal operations. What was once acres of forest becomes hastily built airplane landing strips, roads for importing drugs from South America, and narcotics-holding facilities and “farms” for laundering drug money. Officials, paid off by bribes, look the other way as the protected areas are laid to waste and the traffickers expand their operations, while conservationists and tourists who trespass on the areas are often threatened with violence and even death

Additionally, as the forest falls and the area comes under control of the drug lords, poor local people are oftentimes left as the area’s last defenders and, eventually, get pushed out. “Indigenous and peasant groups report being powerless against the bribes, property fraud and brutality dispossessing them of their lands,” the researchers write.

As Drug Traffickers Move In, Tropical Forests Fall
A sign in front of an indigenous farm in rural Honduras that was eventually overrun by traffickers. It reads, “The entry of persons with violent intent is prohibited. Yes we are Christians and we avoid violence.” Photo: Daniel Byers

This trend, apparently, is relatively new. Drug traffickers began making a shift from Mexico down into more southerly and remote areas of Central America around 2007, most likely in response to the Mexico’s drug crackdown, which was supported by the U.S. When the researchers who led this study asked local people what was driving the heightened rates of deforestation in their area, the locals would reply, “los narcos”—drug traffickers.

Similar situations were reported by researchers working in other areas in Central America, including Nicaragua and Guatemala. Rather than stamp out drug trafficking, the researchers say, the United States’ “war on drugs” efforts merely shifted those activities around. Central American, they write, “is being ripped apart by narco-fueled violence and corruption.”

“When drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them,” said Kendra McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, in a statement.

After hearing increasing reports that drugs were the culprits behind some of Central America's escalating deforestation, McSweeney and her colleagues decided to examine the issue in depth. They used satellite imaging to compile the area of new clearings in eastern Honduras between 2004 to 2012.

They found that loss of forest in some protected areas occurred at rates of 5 to 10 percent annually. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, they calculated, the amount of deforestation in Honduras more than quadrupled. They overlaid those annual deforestation figures with trafficking data from primary cocaine movements. As drug operations waxed and waned, they found, forest clearing rose and fell accordingly.

Escalating rates of deforestation have attracted notice in the area. In 2011, for example, UNESCO listed Honduras’ Rio Platano Biosophere Reserve as “World Heritage in Danger” as a result of the multiple landing strips that had popped up in the protected area. But policy makers—both on the environmental and narcotics side of things—have not made the connection between those two realms, the researchers note.

“This is an important reminder that drug policy is conservation policy,” the researchers write. “Rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits.” 

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