Narco Traffickers Slash Protected Rainforests

By Laurel Morales
January 30, 2014
The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, where the deforestation is occurring, is a World Heritage Site with biosphere reserves equal to the Grand Canyon.

Scientists working in Central America have discovered an unexpected consequence of the drug war: deforestation.

A group of researchers who just published in the journal Science found drug traffickers slashing forests to carve clandestine landing strips, roads and large cattle ranches to launder their drug money in the middle of remote rainforests.

Erik Nielsen, assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University, has been doing research in Honduras and Guatemala on forest carbon for two decades. And the vast canopies of rainforest had always been pristine until recently.

“What really blew me away was coming back and seeing very large clearings, cattle pastures, which would be unheard of because indigenous people don’t raise cattle and they don’t clear big swaths of forest because it takes a lot of money,” Nielsen said.

 Ohio State University associate professor of geography and lead author Kendra McSweeney was noticing the same alarming rate of deforestation where she was doing research on climate change. She and Nielsen decided they needed to switch their research focus. So they spoke to the indigenous communities that live in the forests and discovered narco traffickers were to blame.

“The war on drugs has caused a lot of human suffering, particularly in terms of gang-related violence and cartel-related violence,” McSweeney said. “But what we don’t realize is it’s causing other forms of violence.”

This is happening in a World Heritage Site, a place that has the same protected status as the Grand Canyon. McSweeney and her colleagues said they’re not drug policy experts, but they hope those people who are recognize the drug war’s unintended consequences on conservation.