Narco-Deforestation: Cocaine and Money Laundering Destroy Large Swaths of Central America

Cocaine trafficking is devastating Central America in a way that has probably never occurred to most people: millions of acres of tropical forest are being destroyed.

Unlike in South America’s drug-producing countries, where forests are typically cleared to grow coca, in Central America, drug traffickers are converting forests into pastures for money laundering purposes.

Drug cartels are laundering their illegal profits by purchasing massive cattle ranches and investing in palm oil production in protected areas where such practices are forbidden. Unfortunately, corrupt local officials and weak public institutions look the other way.

A new study estimates that up to 30 percent of all deforestation in three Central American countries is the result of cocaine trafficking, which is responsible for the disappearance of millions of acres of tropical forest across large swaths of Central America.

The countries most negatively affected are Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Steven Sesnie told the Guardian: “Most of the ‘narco-driven’ deforestation we identified happened in bio-diverse moist forest areas, and around 30-60 percent of the annual loss happened within established protected areas, threatening conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.”

The wave of environmental devastation has been moving further south as drug crackdowns have taken force in Mexico.

“As the drugs move north, their value increases and the traffickers and cartels are looking for ways to move this money into the legal economy,” said Sesnie. “Purchasing forest and turning it into agricultural land is one of the main ways they do that.”

Sesnie explained that millions of acres have been deforested over the past decade by using this method and the trend continues.

“Now roughly 86 percent of the cocaine trafficked globally moves through Central America on its way to North American consumers, leaving an estimated $6 billion dollars in illegal profits in the region annually,” explained Sesnie of the U.S .Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our results highlight the key threats to remaining moist tropical forest and protected areas in Central America,” he said, adding that remote forest areas with “low socioeconomic development” were particularly at risk.

Another study, published in 2014, also found that drug trafficking played a significant role  in deforestation in Central America.

At that time, the report found that traffickers had cleared the land to build roads and clandestine airstrips, as well as to launder money.

This more recent study represents the first broad-scale analysis of how drug trafficking, as opposed to cultivation, impacts deforestation and is a direct cause of environmental harm in Latin America.

The report calls for drugs and environment policy—nationally and internationally—to be integrated “to ensure that deforestation pressures on globally significant biodiversity sites are not intensified by… supply-side drug policies in the region.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research

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