Central America deforestation increased by drug trafficking

Legalizing drugs in America could help save Central American rainforests and biodiversity.  These articles show how current drug policies exacerbate rainforest destruction.

Conservation Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation.

by Kendra McSweeney. Science 31 January 2014: Vol. 343 no. 6170 pp. 489-490

The watershed 2013 report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, reviews failures of the U.S.-led “war on drugs”. In Central America, a key zone of drug transit that is being ripped apart by narco-fueled violence and corruption, the push for reform signals hope that the conditions fueling drug traffickers’ profits and corrosive political influence may eventually be dismantled

Seemingly far from the world of conservation science, drug policy reform could also alleviate pressures on Central America’s rapidly disappearing forests. Mounting evidence suggests that the trafficking of drugs (principally cocaine) has become a crucial—and overlooked—accelerant of forest loss in the isthmus.

Since 2000, deforestation rates in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been among the highest in Latin America and the worldr, a globally important region of exceptional biological diversity.

Forest loss has long been driven by multiple interacting forces: weak governance, conflicting property regimes, high poverty, climate change, illegal logging, infrastructure megaprojects, and agribusiness expansion. The trafficking of drugs has intensified these processes and has become a powerful deforestation driver in its own right.

One reason is the close correlation between the timing and location of forest loss and drug transit. Central America has long been a conduit for U.S.-bound cocaine from South America. But the isthmus’ importance as a “bridge” exploded after 2006–07, as Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) moved their smuggling operations southward. Porous borders, corruption, and weak public institutions made Guatemala and Honduras especially attractive, who increasingly routed “primary” cocaine shipments (i.e., boats or planes carrying cocaine directly from South America) into Guatemala’s Petén and eastern Honduras. Thinly populated and with little state presence, these remote forest frontiers offer ideal conditions for traffickers evading interdiction.

“Hot spots” of deforestation often overlap trafficking nodes, especially near primary drug-transfer hubs in eastern Nicaragua and eastern Honduras. For example, in 2011, Honduras’ Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve was listed by UNESCO as “World Heritage in Danger” because of alarming rates of forest loss attributed to the presence of narco-traffickers—as signaled by multiple clandestine landing strips throughout the reserve.

In the contested rural landscapes of the Petén (7), newer sites of primary drug transfer combine with established secondary transshipment routes into Mexico. In Laguna del Tigre National Park and protected areas in the municipality of Sayaxché, the intensification of drug trafficking has been concurrent with annual forest loss rates there of 5% and 10%, respectively. Cadastral analyses confirm that narco-traffickers own large ranches within Laguna del Tigre and other protected areas.

What explains the spatial and temporal overlap of drug trafficking and deforestation?

First, forests are cut for clandestine roads and landing strips. Second, drug trafficking intensifies preexisting pressures on forests by infusing already weakly governed frontiers with unprecedented amounts of cash and weapons. When resident ranchers, oil-palm growers, land speculators, and timber traffickers become involved in drug trafficking, they are narco-capitalized and emboldened and so greatly expand their activities—typically at the expense of the (indigenous) smallholders who are often key forest defenders.

Indigenous and peasant groups report being powerless against the bribes, property fraud, and brutality dispossessing them of their lands. Forest governance at higher levels is also eroded by violence and corruption: Conservation groups have been threatened and fear entering “narco-zones”, while state prosecutors are bribed to look away.

Third, the vast profits that traffickers earn from moving drugs appear to create powerful new incentives for DTOs themselves to convert forest to agriculture (usually pasture or oil-palm plantation). Profits must be laundered. Buying and “improving” remote land (by clearing it) allows dollars to be untraceably converted into private assets, while simultaneously legitimizing a DTO’s presence at the frontier (e.g., as a ranching operation). Large “narco-estates” also serve to monopolize territory against rival DTOs and to maximize traffickers’ range of activity.

In most cases, the purchase and conversion of forests within protected areas and indigenous territories is illegal. But traffickers have enough political influence to ensure their impunity and, where necessary, to falsify land titles. They can then profit from land speculation when they sell to criminal organizations—domestic and foreign—who are increasingly diversifying into rural enterprise. These actors may in turn sell to legitimate corporate interests looking to invest in Central American agribusiness. The result is permanent conversion of forests to agriculture.

Drug Policies Are Conservation Policies

In contexts of drug crop cultivation—particularly in the Andes—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. Relatively little attention, however, has focused on how the same “balloon effect” is operating further up the drug commodity chain, in the countries through which drugs are being moved: Interdiction programs push traffickers into remote spaces where they exacerbate existing pressures on forests and find new opportunities for money laundering and illegal enrichment through forest conversion. For example, “successful” interdiction efforts in Honduras in 2012 appear to be encouraging traffickers to shift operations and ecological impacts to new areas in eastern Nicaragua.

Ultimately, intensified ecological devastation across trafficking zones should 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.

For the international conservation community, this is an important reminder that drug policy is conservation policy.

Of course, drug policy innovations alone will never end deforestation in Central America. But drug policy reforms could mitigate a compounding pressure on these biodiverse forests and buy time for states, conservationists, and rural communities to renew protected area governance and enforcement. Rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits.

Summer 2013. Jeremy Kryt. Battle in the Clouds In the Colombian Andes, ecosystems are disappearing faster than scientists can study them. Earth Island Journal.

As much as 1,864 square miles of Colombia’s forests are lost every year to legal and illegal logging. Scientists say a third of the country’s forest cover has been cut down.

Much of the deforestation in Colombia is driven by commercial logging and local settlers’ need for pasture and cropland. But leftist guerrillas and right-wing militias are also responsible for cutting down vast swaths of jungle to plant illicit drug crops like coca, opium poppy, and cannabis to fund their agendas. Studies have shown that as much as 25% of annual deforestation in Colombia is caused by illegal coca production alone. The insurgencies – especially the largest and best-equipped rebellion by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – pose grave risks for rangers, biologists, and conservation workers in the region.

Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse nations on Earth, boasting 10 percent of the world’s plant and animal species. But if deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate the nation’s woodlands will be depleted within 40 years. Loss of forest cover is bad enough at low-lying elevations, but it’s especially devastating on the slopes of the Andes, where scores of narrow-range, endemic species have evolved to take advantage of the habitat niches created by sudden changes in altitude.

“Colombia’s montane [ecosystems] are much reduced and very fragmented.… Its species are in serious trouble,” Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation at Duke University, wrote in an email to me. According to Pimm’s research staff, as much as 70 percent of all Andean ecosystems have already been compromised by deforestation, mining, and overgrazing.

“The political elite have decided that we should become a global mining superpower – no matter what the cost,” he says. Colombia is rich in gold, coal, and precious gems. Mining currently makes up about a quarter of Colombia’s total exports (about $7.3 billion). Nationwide, transnational mining and oil companies have received, or have sought, concessions to develop a staggering 40 percent of Colombia’s territory. “If all of the [mining] concessions were fulfilled, there would be no place left for Colombians to live,” Martinez says. He adds that the official statistics don’t include the many illegal mines owned and operated by the FARC and other insurgent groups.

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