Drug Money Is Destroying Huge Swaths of Forest in Central America
Cocaine traffickers attempting to launder their profits are responsible for the disappearance of millions of acres of tropical forest across large swaths of Central America, according to a report.
The study, published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that drug trafficking was responsible for up to 30% of annual deforestation in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, turning biodiverse forest into agricultural land.
The study’s lead author, Dr Steven Sesnie from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “Most of the ‘narco-driven’ deforestation we identified happened in biodiverse moist forest areas, and around 30-60% of the annual loss happened within established protected areas, threatening conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.”
The research, which used annual deforestation estimates from 2001 to 2014, focuses on six Central American countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. It estimates the role of drug trafficking, as opposed to drug cultivation, in deforestation for the first time.
“As the drugs move north their value increases and the traffickers and cartels are looking for ways to move this money into the legal economy. Purchasing forest and turning it into agricultural land is one of the main ways they do that,” said Sesnie.
He said the US-led crackdown on drug cartels in Mexico and the Caribbean in the early 2000s concentrated cocaine trafficking activities through the Central American corridor.
“Now roughly 86% of the cocaine trafficked globally moves through Central America on its way to North American consumers, leaving an estimated $6bn US dollars in illegal profits in the region annually.”
This had led to the loss of millions of acres of tropical forest over a decade as drugs cartels laundered their profits, Sesnie said.
“Our results highlight the key threats to remaining moist tropical forest and protected areas in Central America,” he said, adding that remote forest areas with “low socioeconomic development” were particularly at risk.
The report calls for drugs and environment policy – nationally and internationally – to be integrated “to ensure that deforestation pressures on globally significant biodiversity sites are not intensified by … supply-side drug policies in the region."