Cocaine Is Destroying Forests in Central America

Once-forested lands are being used in money laundering operations

Guatemala Forest
This forest in Guatemala was burned to make way for agricultural development. A new study suggests that drug traffickers contribute to rainforest loss by laundering money with agriculture in forest lands. Wikimedia Commons/CC

Cocaine production is big business—according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, a whopping 943 tons of the drug was produced in 2014 alone. And the United States is one of its biggest consumers, with 1.5 million regular users in the U.S. at any given time. But that addiction has more than economic consequences—it has environmental ones. As Oregon Live’s Kale Williams reports, Central American forests are being destroyed by the world’s cocaine habit.

In a new study in the journal Environmental Letters, researchers estimated how much narcotics trafficking affects Central American rainforests. They used statistics about both forest loss and drug trafficking to figure out how much the cocaine trade might be affecting forests—and found that it could account for between 15 and 30 percent of annual deforestation in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras over the last ten years.

Though each country has tried to protect some rainforests, those attempts appear to be struggling: The team discovered that between 30 and 60 percent of the forest loss took place in areas that have been protected by national or international law. That loss presents a major threat to local efforts to protect and restore the rainforest, which not only captures carbon but provides essential habitat for countless animals and plants.

Cocaine production has already been linked to deforestation in places like Colombia, where increases in coca farming turn areas into economic hubs with less forest. But in this case, the deforestation happens not because of farming, but because of traffickers’ need to use the cash generated by their drug sales.

“Narco-deforestation,” as the team is calling it, happens when drug traffickers use once-forested land to launder money. “It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch,” said David Wrathall, who co-authored the story, in a press release.

The United States’ war on drugs fueled the problem, Wrathall adds. As enforcement stepped up in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, drug traffickers headed into more remote areas to launder their money. The cattle ranching, land speculation and illegal logging operations traffickers then set up are hurting irreplaceable rainforest.

As NASA notes, using forest land to pasture animals and grow crops is the largest direct cause of tropical deforestation. As more and more forest land is used, more and more roads and towns are needed—and that reduces the rainforest even more.

Is there a way to stop the forests from disappearing? Maybe—but it will require a multi-pronged approach from around the world. The study’s authors suggest de-escalating the war on drugs and empowering indigenous people in the area so they can take better care of forests. The world may not be able to reduce its demand for cocaine, but it can work to reduce the damage caused by its habit.   

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