Research reveals strong link between drug trafficking and Central American forest loss

16 May 2017

The rainforest in the Sierra de Agalta mountains, Honduras. Photo: Dennis Garcia/Wikipedia

Cocaine trafficking may be behind up to 30 per cent of annual deforestation in the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

A new study – published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters – quantitatively estimates for the first time the potential role of drug trafficking, as opposed to drug cultivation, in forest cover change.

The research focuses on six Central American countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – through which cocaine is known to be trafficked.

Lead author Dr Steven Sesnie from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “Aggressive US-led enforcement in Mexico and the Caribbean in the early 2000s concentrated cocaine trafficking activities through the Central American corridor. Now roughly 86 per cent of the cocaine trafficked globally moves through Central America on its way to North American consumers, leaving an estimated $6 billion US dollars in illegal profits in the region annually. Since the early 2000s, the impact of drug-trafficking and related money laundering has become an important driver of land use changes, like cattle ranching, associated with forest loss in Central America.

“Most of the ‘narco-driven’ deforestation we identified happened in biodiverse moist forest areas, and around 30 to 60 per cent of the annual loss happened within established protected areas, threatening conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.”

Using Global Forest Change data annual deforestation estimates for 2001 to 2014, the research team identified irregular or abnormal deforestation, which did not fit previously identified spatial or temporal patterns caused by more typical forms of land-settlement or frontier colonisation.

The team’s interdisciplinary research estimated the degree to which narcotic trafficking contributes to forest loss, using a set of 15 deforestation patch metrics developed from the data to determine the rate, timing, and extent of deforestation.

Strongly outlying or anomalous patches and deforestation rates were then compared to data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy – considered the best source of estimates of cocaine flow through the Central American corridor.

The comparisons helped to confirm relationships between deforestation and activities including cattle ranching, illegal logging, and land speculation, which traffickers use to launder drug trafficking profits in remote forest areas of Central America.

Dr Sesnie said: “Our results highlight the key threats to remaining moist tropical forest and protected areas in Central America. For example, we believe irregular patterns of forest loss associated with narcotics trafficking account for between 15 and 30 percent of the annual national forest loss in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras over the past decade, with Honduras the most seriously affected.

“Large and remote forest areas with low socioeconomic development are particularly vulnerable to land use changes associated with drug trafficking and money laundering, because of their isolation from improved roads, transportation infrastructure and law enforcement, and the opportunities they give traffickers to launder their profits through illegal frontier land markets.”

The researchers recommended the urgent integration of national and international conservation and drug policies, to ensure that deforestation pressures on globally significant biodiversity sites are not intensified by interdiction and supply-side drug policies in the region.