Narco-deforestation: how cocaine trafficking is destroying Central America’s forests

La cosiddetta “narco-deforestazione” minaccia le foreste centroamericane, i trafficanti comprano terreni da disboscare per riciclare il denaro sporco.

Cocaine trafficking is responsible for the disappearance of millions of hectares of tropical forest in Central America, threatening the very survival of local communities and that of biodiversity. This is what has been defined “narco-deforestation”.

Foresta bruciata per fare pascoli
Researchers say tropical rainforests in Central America are desappearing at an alarming rate, threatening the survival of indigenous people and biodiversity © Mario Tama/Getty Images

What is narco-deforestation

Researchers from the Oregon University conducted a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters to assess such alarming trend. They demonstrated that huge forest areas are purchased by traffickers to launder their profits from drug trafficking. Researchers suggest that traffickers are responsible for up to 30 per cent of annual deforestation in Central America, turning forest areas into agricultural land.

Drug traffickers are pushed into remote areas

The study, based on annual deforestation estimates from 2001 to 2014, analysed six countries in Central America key to cocaine trafficking towards North America and Europe: Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. “Starting in the early 2000s, the United States-led drug enforcement pushed drug traffickers into places that were harder to patrol, like the large, forested areas of central America,” said David Wrathall, a study’s co-author.

Colibrì in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 animal and plant species, including a huge variety of hummingbirds © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Drug trafficking is killing biodiversity

In these pristine areas drug traffickers launder their profits from cocaine (about six billion dollars every year) by purchasing and deforest large areas of forest in order to set up ranches, farms and breeding farms. This has a negative impact on biodiversity and protected areas. “Most of the ‘narco-driven’ deforestation we identified happened in biodiverse moist forest areas, and around 30-60 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,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Steven Sesnie from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nativo della Costa Rica
Young man of the indigenous Boruca community in Costa Rica during a traditional ceremony © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Forests belong to indigenous people

The study’s authors suggest that to reverse such trend and save Central American forests and communities is essential adopting more effective policies regarding drugs and the environment, both on an international and national level. “Obviously, ending the illegal drug trade would be the best solution, but that isn’t going to happen,” said Sesnie. “In fact, when drug enforcement efforts are successful, they often push the activity into remote areas that haven’t had issues before, such as remote biodiversity hotspots”.

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