When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Geopolitics

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

MEXICOCITY — 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.”

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

Journalism In A Zero-Trust World: Maria Ressa Speaks After Rappler Shut Down Again

The Rappler CEO and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke with The Wire's Arfa Khanum Sherwani about how journalists everywhere need to prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario of government-ordered closure and what they should do to face up to such a challenge.

Maria Ressa, Filipino journalist, author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Arfa Khanum Sherwani

HONOLULU — For someone who’s just been ordered to shut down the news website she runs, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is remarkably cheerful about what may happen next.

In a speech she gave to a conference at the East-West Center here on challenges the media face in a “zero trust world”, Ressa said that she and her colleagues were prepared for this escalation in the Philippines government’s war on independent media and will carry on doing the work they do. “If you live in a country where the rule of law is bent to the point it’s broken, anything is possible…. So you have to be prepared.”

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ