How Drug Smugglers Are Destroying Central America's Rain Forests

Traffickers in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been clear-cutting swaths of rain forest to create clandestine landing strips for drug transport planes.

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Apparently not content with simply wrecking human lives, drug traffickers in Central America have added environmental destruction to the list of things left ruined in their wake.

Since 2007, smugglers in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been clear-cutting swaths of rain forest—including in protected areas—to create clandestine airplane landing strips and roads for importing drugs from South America, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The researchers believe the traffickers' move from Mexico to Central America was in part a reaction to Mexico’s war on drugs, which the U.S. has supported.

“When drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them,” said Kendra McSweeney, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor at Ohio State University, in a statement.

In Honduras, researchers noticed a sharp increase in deforestation between 2007 and 2011, when rates quadrupled. At the same time, an increased amount of cocaine was moving through the country. "A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 square kilometers per year," McSweeney told the BBC. "Under the narco-effect, we see over 60 square kilometers per year.”

In some parts of Guatemala, the rates of narco-deforestation are “10 percent annually,” she said, “which is just staggering.”

One protected area whose forests are being slashed is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Stretching south from Mexico through most of Central America, the vast habitat was established in 1998 to protect biodiversity. Erick Neilson, a coauthor of the deforestation study, called it “equal to the Grand Canyon” in terms of international prestige. "There is going to be a long-term consequence" from deforestation in Mesoamerica, he said.

When McSweeney and her coauthors asked locals to identify the source of the surge, they pointed to "los narcos" (drug traffickers).

“I would get approached by people who wanted to change $20 bills in places where cash is very scarce and dollars are not the normal currency. When that starts happening, you know narcos are there,” McSweeney said.

Bribes to government officials enable the smugglers to continue their operations, the researchers found. Cash profits also help local ranchers, land speculators, timber traffickers, and palm oil plantation farmers expand their operations, exacerbating the effects on indigenous peoples.

Yet indigenous and conservation leaders are afraid to shed light on the issue, McSweeney told the BBC. "Honduras now has the world's highest homicide rate. They've all been silenced," she said.

McSweeney says that her findings indicate the connection between drug policies and conservation policies—and that a revamp is long overdue.

“U.S.-led militarized interdiction, for example, has succeeded mainly in moving traffickers around, driving them to operate in ever more remote, biodiverse ecosystems,” she said. “Reforming drug policies could alleviate some of the pressures on Central America’s disappearing forests."

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