Illegal drugs have a surprising new victim: ecologically important lands in Central America, where criminal activities associated with the drug trade are wreaking havoc, scientists report.
It has long been known that rain forests are often cleared to grow coca for cocaine, but a new paper in the journal Science warns that the business of transporting illegal drugs and laundering the proceeds is contributing to deforestation, too.
Traffickers build landing strips and roads in the forest to move their product, the new research finds. Some traffickers bribe officials to look the other way, then buy up local land to convert it into palm oil plantations and ranching operations as a way of laundering drug money.
"There are profound ecological impacts in trafficking corridors," says Kendra McSweeney, lead author of the new paper, which was published Thursday.
McSweeney studies conservation and the interactions between people and the environment at Ohio State University and went to Honduras in 2011 to study how indigenous communities respond to climate change.
Instead, she was struck by "rapid rates of forest loss, over massive areas in the heart of protected areas.
"We wondered who had the money and impunity to do that, and when we looked into it we found that the answer was narco-traffickers," says McSweeney, who was conducting her research on a National Geographic grant. "The flow of drugs through the region resulted in ecological devastation."
She was quick to point out that deforestation in Latin America has many causes, including impacts from development projects such as dams and roads, pressure to convert forest into farmland, illegal logging, and urban sprawl.
"But what we were seeing was over and above that, it was literally deforestation on drugs," she says, in that drug trafficking was accelerating forest-clearing.
Linking Degradation and Drugs
In their paper, McSweeney and colleagues from several universities in the U.S. and Germany note that deforestation rates have been particularly high in parts of Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, especially in the Caribbean lowlands.
The Central American region is host to rich biodiversity and is sparsely populated, making in an attractive route for smuggling drugs from South America, where the drugs are grown, to the U.S., where they are consumed.
Forest loss at the hands of narco-traffickers provoked UNESCO to list Honduras's Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve as a "World Heritage in Danger" in 2011, the scientists write.
In Guatemala's Peten region, rising drug trafficking activities are correlated with rising deforestation rates. Those activities include construction of large ranches owned by cartels inside Laguna del Tigre National Park.
The presence of well-funded and potentially violent criminals has also inhibited the conservation work of government officials, scientists, environmental groups, and indigenous groups, the scientists say.
The United Nations and international development agencies have also pulled workers from the region because it's too dangerous.
"Conservation groups have spent tremendous amounts of money on protecting Central American biodiversity, and it's being undone," McSweeney says.
Without that conservation infrastructure, there's little defense against illegal loggers and poachers.
The effects of drug trafficking have even been felt in relatively stable Costa Rica, where there's strong government support for conservation. Last May, a 26-year-old sea turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, was beaten and strangled to death after patrolling a Caribbean beach at night for egg poachers.
The incident attracted widespread international attention, and many in the environmental and law enforcement communities have theorized that the crime was linked to drug traffickers.
Rethinking Drug Policy
McSweeney says her research should spur scientists to think differently about the illegal drug trade.
"Natural scientists have for a long time felt that drug policy has nothing to do with them, but we need them to join the conversation," she says.
In their paper, the scientists argue that rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits.
"Standard approaches to the war on drugs since [President] Nixon declared it [in the 1970s] have been an utter failure," McSweeney argues. (Related: "Pictures: The Energy Drain of Recreational Drugs.")
"By focusing on militarized, supply-side policies and drug crop eradication," she says, "U.S. drug policy has caused spectacular human and ecological misery in countries to our south."
A British anti-drug-war advocacy group called Count the Costs says that ongoing systematic eradication of drug crops, often by spraying chemicals from the sky, "leaves a catalogue of environmental harms in its wake."
The group cites harm to wild plants and animals, livestock, and people. And it says that such attempts at eradication often end up leading to more deforestation, because farmers just move their operations to other plots of land, sometimes in protected areas.
Other scientists are more reluctant to wade into the contentious debate around public policy on illegal drugs, perhaps because of mixed public opinion.
McSweeney says that when it comes to reforming drug policy, "there are no clear answers."
But she urges increased focus on reducing demand and the consideration of restricted legalization, "particularly for softer drugs like marijuana that are the bread and butter for trafficking organizations.
"That hits their bottom line," she says, "and reduces their ability to corrupt officials and launder money through forest destruction."