Monday, February 10, 2014

Narco-Deforestation Accelerates Loss of Biodiversity

In Central America, drug policies become conservation policies.

The Central American isthmus exploded into prominence as a drug trafficking corridor in 2006, when pressure on Mexican cartels pushed smuggling operations to the south and into the remote forest frontiers of Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Since then, vigorous interdiction programs have pushed traffickers into ever more remote zones, back and forth from country to country, bringing money, manpower, and greater opportunities for deforestation.

Kendra McSweeney of the Department of Geography at Ohio State University and co-workers dug into the recent comprehensive report by the Organization of American States (OAS), titled The Drug Problem in the Americas, and wrote up their findings in a recent contribution to Science's Policy Forum. They found that “mounting evidence suggests that the trafficking of drugs (principally cocaine) has become a crucial—and overlooked—accelerant of forest loss in the isthmus.” (See graph above, representing forest clearings in Eastern Honduras.)

In the Caribbean lowlands area known as the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, and in protected rural regions like Laguna del Tigre National Park in Guatemala and the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras (now listed as “in danger” by UNESCO due to forest loss), there is no shortage of reasons why deforestation in Central American is increasing. Among the causes are weak or corrupt government agencies, climate change, poverty, illegal logging, ill-advised development, and rampant agribusiness expansion. However, what has been called the “compounding pressure” of drug trafficking on biodiverse forestlands and associated rural communities is making things worse. The report in Science documented that an unprecedented flow of cocaine into Central America “coincided with a period of extensive forest loss” as narco-traffickers purchase large ranches in “contested rural landscapes.”

What are the active causal connections between drug trafficking and deforestation? The researchers identified three interrelated mechanisms “by which forest loss follows the establishment of a drug transit hub.”

1. Drug traffickers cut down forests to establish secret roads and aircraft landing strips.

2. Drug money amps up the pressure on weakly governed frontier areas, resulting in “narco-capitalized” land speculators and timber harvesting operations. In the process, local small landowners get priced out, even though the conversion of forests to farmlands is illegal in protected areas.

3. Drug trafficking organizations are themselves drawn into local forest-to-agriculture development plans like pastures and oil-palm plantations. Buying up and developing land is a preferred method of laundering drug money. These vague “narco-estates” monopolize land use in some territories and serve as cover for expanded smuggling operations.

What could mitigate this form of additional pressure on tropical deforestation? The researchers suggest that the heart of the problem is the traditional emphasis on supply-side policies, such as interdiction and crop eradication on foreign soil. “Analysts have long noted that eradication policies often push coca (and opium poppy and marijuana) growers into ever more ecologically sensitive zones, with substantial environmental impacts.”

The authors of the Science article view all of this as something to be added to “the long list of negative unintended consequences borne by poor countries as a result of the overwhelming emphasis on supply-side drug reduction policies…. Recognizing the ecological costs of drug trafficking in transit countries would improve full-cost pricing analyses of the drug policy scenarios explored by the OAS.”

McSweeney K., Nielsen E.A., Taylor M.J., Wrathall D.J., Pearson Z., Wang O. & Plumb S.T. (2014). Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation, Science, 343 (6170) 489-490. DOI:

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