First, forests are cut for clandestine
roads and landing strips (15) (see the
photo). Second, drug trafficking inten-sifies preexisting pressures on forests
by infusing already weakly governed
frontiers with unprecedented amounts
of cash and weapons. When resident
ranchers, oil-palm growers, land speculators, and timber traffickers become
involved in drug trafficking, they are
narco-capitalized and emboldened
(13, 14) and so greatly expand their
activities—typically at the expense of
the (indigenous) smallholders who are
often key forest defenders (7, 13, 16).
Indigenous and peasant groups
report being powerless against the
bribes, property fraud, and brutality
dispossessing them of their lands (13,
14, 16). Forest governance at higher
levels is also eroded by violence and corruption: Conservation groups have been threatened and fear entering “narco-zones” (15),
while state prosecutors are bribed to look
Third, the vast profits that traffickers
earn from moving drugs (8) appear to create powerful new incentives for DTOs themselves to convert forest to agriculture (
usually pasture or oil-palm plantation). Profits
must be laundered. Buying and “improving”
remote land (by clearing it) allows dollars to
be untraceably converted into private assets,
while simultaneously legitimizing a DTO’s
presence at the frontier (e.g., as a ranching
operation). Large “narco-estates” also serve
to monopolize territory against rival DTOs
and to maximize traffickers’ range of activity (12–16).
In most cases, the purchase and conversion of forests within protected areas and
indigenous territories is illegal. But traffickers have enough political influence to ensure
their impunity and, where necessary, to falsify land titles (14, 16). They can then profit
from land speculation when they sell to criminal organizations—domestic and foreign—
who are increasingly diversifying into rural
enterprise (12, 14). These actors may in turn
sell to legitimate corporate interests looking
to invest in Central American agribusiness (7,
12, 16). The result is permanent conversion of
forests to agriculture.
Drug Policies Are Conservation Policies
In contexts of drug crop cultivation—
particularly in the Andes—analysts have long noted
that eradication policies often push coca
(and opium poppy and marijuana) growers
into ever more ecologically sensitive zones,
with substantial environmental impacts (1,
17). Relatively little attention, however, has
focused on how the same “balloon effect”
is operating further up the drug commodity
chain, in the countries through which drugs
are being moved: Interdiction programs push
traffickers into remote spaces where they
exacerbate existing pressures on forests and
find new opportunities for money laundering
and illegal enrichment through forest conversion. For example, “successful” interdiction efforts in Honduras in 2012 (see graph)
appear to be encouraging traffickers to shift
operations and ecological impacts to new
areas in eastern Nicaragua (18).
Ultimately, intensified ecological devastation across trafficking zones should be added
to the long list of negative unintended consequences borne by poor countries as a result of
the overwhelming emphasis on supply-side
drug reduction policies (4).
For the international conservation community, this is an important reminder that
drug policy is conservation policy. Careful
interdisciplinary research is now needed to
address empirical uncertainties regarding
the magnitude and dynamics of the narco-trafficking–deforestation relation, especially
how narco-capital (especially via money
laundering and bribery) influences environmental governance, agrarian futures,
and ecosystem services. Such research will
inform not only conservation policy but
evidence-based drug policy, too (1, 4). For
example, recognizing the ecological costs
of drug trafficking in transit countries would
improve full-cost pricing analyses of the
drug policy scenarios explored by the OAS.
Of course, drug policy innovations alone
will never end deforestation in Central Amer-
ica. But well-targeted drug policy reforms
could mitigate a compounding pressure on
these biodiverse forests and buy time for
states, conservationists, and rural communi-
ties to renew protected area governance and
enforcement. Rethinking the war on drugs
could yield important ecological benefits.
References and Notes
1. A. Briones et al., Eds., The Drug Problem in the Americas
(General Secretariat, OAS, Washington, DC, 2013).
2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Transnational
Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A
Threat Assessment (UNODC,Vienna, 2012).
3. J. M. Bunck, M. R. Fowler, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America
(Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, University Park, PA,
4. Global Commission on Drug Policy, War on Drugs: Report
of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011).
5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,
“Global forest resources assessment 2010” (FAO, Rome,
6. D. J. Redo, H. R. Grau, T. M. Aide, M. L. Clark, Proc. Natl.
Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 8839 (2012).
7. N. Cuéllar et al., Territorial Dynamics in Central America:
Context and Challenges for Rural Communities (
Fun-dación PRISMA, San Salvador, 2011).
8. C. J. Arnason, E. L. Olson, Eds., Organized Crime in
Central America: The Northern Triangle (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC,
9. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
Affairs, “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy
Report” (Department of State, Washington, DC, 2013).
10. S. T. Plumb, E. A. Nielsen, Y.-S. Kim, Forests 3, 244
11. O. Regalado et al., “Mapa de cobertura forestal de
Guatemala 2010 y dinámica de la cobertura forestal
2006–2010” [National Forestry Institute (INAB),
National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, Universidad Rafael Landívar,
Guatemala City, 2012].
12. L. Grandia, Dev. Change 44, 233 (2013).
13. J. Grüberg, L. Grandia, B. Milian and team, Tierra y Igual-dad: Desafíos para la Administración de Tierras en Petén,
Guatemala (Agriculture and Rural Development, World
Bank, Washington, DC, 2012).
14. InSight Crime, Grupos de Poder en Petén: Territorio,
Política y Negocios (Insight Crime, Medellin, Colombia,
and American Univ., Washington, DC, 2011); www.
15. W. Allen, Yale Environment 360, 8 October 2012.
16. K. McSweeney, Z. Pearson, “Prying native people from
native lands: Narco business in Honduras” NACLA Report
on the Americas, 7 January 2014.
17. A. V. Bradley, A. C. Millington, Ecol. Soc. 13, 31 (2008).
18. H. Stone, “Nicaragua coast becomes gateway for Honduras drug flights” (Insight Crime, Medellin, Colombia, and
American Univ., Washington, DC, 2012); www.insight-crime.org/news-analysis/nicaragua-coast-becomes-gateway-for-honduras-drug-flights.
Acknowledgments: Portions of this work were supported
by grants to K. M. from the National Geographic Society, Ohio
State University’s (OSU’s) Mershon Center for International
Security Studies, OSU’s Office of International Affairs, and the
Association of American Geographers and by faculty grants to
E.A. N. from Northern Arizona University (NAU). Planet Action,
the Landscape Conservation Initiative at NAU, and the Science
Foundation of Arizona provided support to O. W. We thank S.
Sesnie, reviewers, and Terra-i.org.
2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Forest loss (km2)
Number of primary cocaine movements
Deforestation and drug trafficking in eastern Honduras. Deforested area is the sum of new clearings >5.29 ha
detected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). For materials and methods, see the supplementary materials.