The rainforests of the world are rapidly disappearing due to a range of issues, including illegal logging and cattle ranching. Now, researchers have pinpointed another surprising factor in the destruction of the rainforests in Central America: Drug trafficking.

Kendra McSweeney is a geographer at the Ohio State University, who is trained in human environment relations. For the last 20 years, she has worked in Honduras in Central America, trying to understand how indigenous people and rural populations interact with their environment and deal with various environmental stresses. Starting in 2007, she and other long-time researchers in the region began noticing something odd.


"We started seeing a pattern of deforestation at a pace that seemed unprecedented," McSweeney told io9. "We saw large areas of 100 to 500 hectares being cleared in a short amount of time." And it wasn't as if small-time farmers were nibbling at the edges of protected areas. The scientists found large clearings within UNESCO World Heritage sites — areas with important cultural or physical significance.

Specifically, the deforestation rate in Eastern Honduras more than quadrupled from 2007 to 2011. Deforestation has also spiked in Eastern Nicaragua and Northern Guatemala.


But who could actually clear such a large amount of protected land and get away with it? "The only people who have the impunity to do something so highly illegal are drug traffickers," McSweeney said. These people have the power and money to hire people to clear the land and pay off local authorities.

The scientists weren't the only ones who saw what was going on. When the researchers asked around why the rainforests were disappearing, locals said "los narcos" — drug traffickers. Indeed, when McSweeney and her colleagues looked at the data over the years, they found that the movement of cocaine through the country spiked in accordance with the spike in forest lost.

What's the Connection?

The researchers determined three interrelated mechanisms by which the drug trafficking organizations led to further deforestation in Central America.


The most direct and least impactful: The organizations cut down forests to make way for clandestine roads and airstrips.

Second, the drug activity amplified the ecologically harmful activities of certain powerful locals. In order to set up the operations, the organizations needed to get in touch with people in the rural, remote areas to help coordinate the activities. These people, McSweeney said, would have been well connected, understand how authorities work in the area and be knowledgeable about how to make quick getaways. These "middlemen" would likely have already been involved in small-scale illicit activities, such as hardwood trafficking, the illegal pet trade or ranching in protected areas.

To get these people on board, the organizations paid them — a lot. "They get paid incredibly well, about $20,000 per flight, and there are maybe 100 flights a year," McSweeney said. The new cash flow allowed the middlemen to ramp up their own activities and expand further into the rainforests, much at the expense of indigenous smallholders, who were the ones to usually defend the forest.


Sign from an indigenous farm in Eastern Honduras, which was overrun by narco-traffickers and narco-ranchers. It reads: "The entry of persons with violent intent is prohibited. Yes we are Christians and we avoid violence." Courtesy of Daniel Byers.

The final and arguably most ecologically destructive aspect of the trafficking involved money laundering. The activities made people incredibly — and conspicuously — wealthy, so they had to do something with that money. They ended up buying up forestland with cash to convert to cattle pastures and oil-palm plantations — these activities go unregistered. "They transformed their dirty money into assets," McSweeney said. These so-called "narco-estates" also allowed traffickers to monopolize territories against rival organizations and maximize the range of their activities.


Of course, the purchasing and conversion of land within protected forests and indigenous territories is illegal. But such rules don't always apply when you have the money to put authoritative figures into your pocket — people who will not only turn a blind eye to the activities, but also falsify land titles. What's more, the drug traffickers can profit from land speculation — in which real estate is purchased in hopes that its market value will quickly increase — when they sell to domestic and foreign criminal organizations. In the end, the forests may be permanently turned into agriculture when the criminal organizations sell the land to legitimate corporations that want to invest in Central American agriculture. "They are effectively creating a very profitable, speculative land market," McSweeney said.

Why Now?

The drug traffickers' movement into Eastern Honduras, as well as Eastern Nicaragua and Northern Guatemala, was a result of strict drug policies, McSweeney explained. Militarized interdiction efforts that were funded by the U.S. pushed the illegal organizations out of their primary areas.


For a long time, most of the cocaine that reached the U.S. travelled through the Caribbean first. "They got from the source to the demand areas pretty efficiently with little interruption," McSweeney said. "But then the U.S. put a lot of money into breaking up the drug cartels."

Mexican drug trafficking organizations took over and started to reorient more drugs through Central American routes. The activity was able to remain mostly under the radar because of the diversity of routes the organizations utilized. But in 2006, the Mexican government began their war on Mexican drug trafficking, McSweeney said. So the illicit organizations increasingly moved their operations to countries in the south. "Rather than receiving drugs through multiple routes, they told their contacts to move virtually all of the drugs through Guatemala or Honduras," she said.

The flights that carried large drug shipments went directly to the remote forest areas. Here, the big transfers occurred — the traffickers broke the large shipments into much smaller ones, which they sent through overland routes. The traffickers paid local authority figures to look the other way, McSweeney said.


Region near the ranch of an alleged drug trafficker in Honduras. Image courtesy of David Wrathall.

This sordid history has great implications for future drug policies that seek to simply remove drug trafficking organizations from certain areas. "What 40 years of drug policy has taught us is that it might solve the problem in one place, but it's pushing it into another," McSweeney said. In 2012, interdiction efforts were able to effectively kick out many drug trafficking organizations from eastern Honduras — but they didn't give up, they just moved their operations to eastern Nicaragua.


It's not at all clear what can be done about this issue. But, McSweeney noted, the United States' approach of trying to prevent drugs from entering the country doesn't work — it actually makes the drugs more available and cheaper. Worse yet, this supply-side reduction approach has caused "spectacular human and ecological carnage in Latin America," she said.

Before authorities can sit down to work out alternatives, they have to be clear about the possible collateral damages of the different options. "We want to add ecological damage in trafficking zones to the list of collateral damages," McSweeney said. What was once a non-conservation issue has become one, so the researchers hope that conservation organizations will get involved to help figure it all out. "Drug policy is conservation policy," she said.


Check out McSweeney's Policy Forum article in the journal Science.

Top image via Robert Hyman.