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Scientists Reveal How The Drug Trade Is Destroying The Rainforest

Narco-traffickers are rolling back decades of conservation work by cutting down rainforests and leaving ecological destruction in its wake.

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By John Lavitt

02/10/14

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In a frightening report published in the journal Science, top researchers revealed how the cocaine trade has become a serious hazard to the ecology of the world's rainforest through deforestation.

The combination of building landing strips in vulnerable areas with the scooping up of rainforest land for ranching operations and palm oil plantations has resulted in entrenched threats to the rain forest. In Central America, where both palm oil plantations and ranching are destroying ecologically important lands, narco-traffickers bribe local officials to look the other way, making law enforcement ineffective. The result is a stripping-down of the rainforest to make way for bare grazing lands and cheap palm oil facilities.

Kendra McSweeney, lead author of the new paper, described the severity of the situation. "There are profound ecological impacts in trafficking corridors," she said. "We wondered who had the money and impunity to do that, and when we looked into it we found that the answer was narco-traffickers…The flow of drugs through the region resulted in ecological devastation."

In their paper, McSweeney and her fellow scientists noted that forest loss at the hands of the drug traffickers provoked UNESCO to list Honduras's Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve as a "World Heritage in Danger" in 2011. The violent presence of the drug trade, however, has inhibited any real conservation work; both the United Nations and international development agencies have pulled workers from the region because of the growing danger caused by the narco-traffickers' presence.

Frustrated by political impotence, McSweeney said, "Conservation groups have spent tremendous amounts of money on protecting Central American biodiversity, and it's being undone…Natural scientists have for a long time felt that drug policy has nothing to do with them, but we need them to join the conversation.”

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