Cocaine Trafficking Is Destroying Forests in Central America, Study Suggests

By Victoria Kim 06/30/17

Researchers attribute 30% of annual deforestation in places such as Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to the cocaine trade.

a land clearing in the middle of the forest.

A report in Environmental Research Letters suggests that cocaine traffickers are responsible for 15%-30% of forest loss every year in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua over the last 10 years.

According to Ohio State University geographer Kendra McSweeney and her colleagues, drug traffickers favor “land clearing in the form of cattle ranching, agro-industrial plantations, and timber extraction” as a way to funnel drug profits to the legal economy.

According to Science Magazine, McSweeney and her team studied deforestation in six countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama—to see if they coincided with increases in drug trafficking from 2001-2013.

Using data from the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Change website, the team identified a correlation between drug trafficking and deforestation in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua—attributing up to 30% of annual deforestation in those countries to the cocaine trade.

“[Narcos] want to move large sums of money, so you’re going to see big things happen: larger areas of deforestation, faster rates, and patches in zones that are isolated,” said Steven Sesnie, a spatial ecologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The team built a model using 15 metrics that could distinguish patches of “narco-deforestation” from other types of forest loss—for example, the researchers suspected that “unusually large, remote and rapid forest clearing” would indicate the work of drug traffickers, as opposed to small-time farmers.

The result of these massive land clearings is hurting indigenous communities, who are being displaced as a result of large-scale deforestation, which, McSweeney noted, often occurs within protected areas.

Though this study’s findings only indicate a link between drug trafficking and deforestation—South American traffickers are already known to inflict damage on the environment, not just to launder money, but to grow coca to produce cocaine, and build landing strips and roads to transport their illicit goods.

McSweeney acknowledged the inevitable effects that drug policy has on her work as a natural scientist. "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," she said, according to a 2014 report by National Geographic

"Standard approaches to the War on Drugs since [President] Nixon declared it [in the 1970s] have been an utter failure. By focusing on militarized, supply-side policies and drug crop eradication, US drug policy has caused spectacular human and ecological misery in countries to our south."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr