Drug trafficking is responsible for the massive destruction of rainforests across Central America, according to a new study, destroying huge swathes of land for airstrips, roads, and cattle ranches that are used to launder money.
Kendra McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University and the study’s lead author, said her research found “almost cancer-like growths of really rapid forest cover change,” which could “only be explained by the presence of narco-traffickers,” reported NBC News.
In Guatemala and Honduras, forests are cut to build airstrips and roads to facilitate the movement north of South American cocaine, found the study. Drug traffickers are also clearing the land in order to launder their drug proceeds through logging operations and cattle ranches.
McSweeney and her colleagues found that annual rates of deforestation in Honduras quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, a time that coincided with an increase in cocaine shipments through the country, as drug routes changed in response to increased pressure from authorities in Mexico.
However, McSweeney acknowledged that proving the connection between drug trafficking and deforestation isn’t easy; most conservationists left the region around 2007 due to security concerns and officials are often bribed to stay silent. Yet an effort to trace land ownership records in Guatemala, she said, demonstrates new holdings under a well-known “narco family.”
McSweeney argued that her findings add to the case for a new drug policy paradigm based on decriminalization.
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Drug production has a long history of causing environmental devastation throughout Latin America, with remote (and wildlife-rich) jungle regions an excellent place to produce and transport drugs with little interference from authorities. A prime example that mirrors McSweeney’s findings is Colombia, where tens if not hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest have been cleared over the years to plant coca and build cattle ranches. Toxic chemical byproducts of the cocaine production process also contaminate the surrounding area, while the aerial eradication of coca fields has indiscriminately destroyed all crops and poisoned water supplies.
This latest report is not the first study to note how this impact has been spreading north into Central America. In 2012, a report by Yale Environment 360 detailed how Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve in the northern state of Peten — a sparsely populated region with limited state presence — has been severely affected by criminal groups clearing forest for airstrips and cattle ranches.
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The depressing reality is that such environmental devastation is an inevitable byproduct of drug trafficking and illegal drug production. As long as demand remains high for a product with a huge profit margin, criminals will continue to need space to make and move it, and isolated wilds make for ideal locations.