Narco-Deforestation, How Drug Trafficking Destroys The Environment

Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua offer vivid proof of the ravages that narco-trafficking inflicts on the environment, from clandestine landing strips to roads built to transport illegal drugs.

Soldiers of Guatemala's Army have to avoid contraband, tax evasion, human trafficking, and other crimes that are committed in the frontier with the south of Mexico.
Soldiers of Guatemala's Army have to avoid contraband, tax evasion, human trafficking, and other crimes that are committed in the frontier with the south of Mexico.
Frédéric Saliba

MEXICO CITY — Kendra McSweeney, co-author of an unprecedented study on the little known plague of narco-deforestation, doesn’t mince words.

“Narco-trafficking is causing an environmental disaster in Central America,” says the professor of geography at Ohio State University.

Published in January in Science magazine, McSweeney's report issues stark, detailed findings for what can first be perceived from the sky: areas of tropical forest in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua that have been destroyed by narco-traffickers to make way for clandestine landing strips and other roads used to transport drugs to the United States, the world’s largest market.

“These protected ecological areas have become a hub for cocaine trafficking from South America,” says McSweeney, adding that annual deforestation in Honduras grew four times between 2007 and 2011, while drug trafficking also became more intense there.

In 2011 alone, 183 square kilometers of forest were destroyed in the east of the country, particularly in the Río Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The phenomenon is worsening the loss of vegetative ground cover that is mostly caused by illegal logging,” she says.

Worse still, drug smugglers are laundering their illegal profits in livestock farms and intensive palm oil production. “It is illegal to build farms inside protected areas,” says McSweeney, condemning corrupt local government officials and the weakness of public institutions that are allowing their proliferation.

“The cockroach effect”

The same devastating effects have hit the reserves and national parks of northern Guatemala and northeastern Nicaragua. “The forest rangers are too low in numbers and badly equipped to face drug smugglers in these remote and poor regions, which are breeding grounds for illegal trafficking,” says Matthew Taylor, co-author of the report. “Especially as the dirty money of the cartels is boosting the activities of land speculators and wood smugglers.”

A Colorado geographer, Taylor says deforestation has increased from 5% to 10% in seven years at the Laguna del Tigre National Park in northeastern Guatemala.

The phenomenon also coincides with the war on narco-trafficking that former Mexican president Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) launched at the end of 2006 with the support of the United States. “With the military pressure in Mexico, the cartels have moved to the south,” Taylor notes. It is what they call the “efecto cucaracha” (“cockroach effect”), in reference to the insect’s survival instinct.

Like the powerful Sinaloa cartel — led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka “El Chapo,” until his Feb. 22 arrest — the Mexican mafias have extended their influence in Central America. “Narco-deforestation allows the cartels to occupy territories to the detriment of their rivals,” McSweeney says. “If this goes on, clearcutting will affect the rest of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which extends from Panama to Mexico.”

The Indian communities that occupy these protected areas are the first victims. “The Indians are pushed out of their lands or recruited, by fair means or foul, by the drug traffickers to clear parts of the forest or to work in their farms,” Taylor explains, adding that everyone remains silent because they fear retribution.

But the governments of Central America are ramping up drug seizures with the help of the United States. In October 2013, the Honduran armed forces announced the destruction of 10 illegal landing strips in the Mosquitia region, in the north of the country, where the Río Platano Biosphere Reserve is located.

“This solely repressive strategy will not resolve the issue,” McSweeney says. During the next Mesoamerican Congress on Protected Areas, the geographer hopes to appeal to the regional leaders to reassess the war on drug trafficking as a public health problem with devastating effects on the environment.

“The future of biodiversity depends on it.”

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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