The disturbing link between cocaine and deforestation

Drug trafficking and forest loss go hand in hand, according to a policy article in Science. When traffickers set up operations in remote parts of Central America, their presence drives road construction and corruption, leading to deforestation.

Forest loss has been on the rise in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and one particularly hard-hit area is a biodiversity hotspot called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Many problems have contributed to deforestation, including illegal logging, the expansion of farms, and poor government oversight. But the authors argue that “trafficking of drugs has intensified these processes and has become a powerful deforestation driver in its own right.”

They point out that traffickers are drawn to forests because few people live there, and policing in the area is weak. The traffickers may cut down trees in order to build roads and set up landing strips for planes. Ranchers and plantation owners can also become embroiled in the drug network and force out indigenous people. Traffickers buy up land, clear the forests, and then establish large farming operations through which they can launder money. Even if the land is technically protected, the criminals can often get around the legal restrictions.

To investigate the connection between drug trafficking and deforestation, the authors obtained data from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy on cocaine shipments arriving in Honduras. Then they analyzed satellite observations of about 50,000 square kilometers in Honduras, taken from 2004 to 2012, to determine where forest loss has occurred. The team found that as cocaine movements increased, so did the detection of large patches of newly-cleared land.

Deforestation and drug trafficking in Honduras

Patterns of cocaine trafficking and deforestation in Honduras.

With a better understanding of the “narco-deforestation” trend, people could craft drug policies that benefit forests as well, the authors suggest. “Rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits,” the team concludes. Roberta Kwok | 4 February 2014

Source: McSweeney, K. et al. 2014. Drug policy as conservation policy: Narco-deforestation. Science doi: 10.1126/science.1244082.

First image © Shutterstock | Africa Studio

Second image © Science/AAAS