The watershed 2013 report, The Drug Problem in the Americas (1), highlights a shift
toward multilateral support
for hemispheric drug policy
reform. This report by the
Organization of American
States (OAS) reviews failures of the U.S.-led prohibitionist “war on drugs” and
urges states to reconsider
orthodox “supply-side” strategies (including interdiction and drug crop eradication), and to focus more on
demand-side policy experimentation. In Central America, a key zone
of drug transit that is being ripped apart by
narco-fueled violence and corruption (2, 3),
the push for reform signals hope that the conditions fueling drug traffickers’ profits and
corrosive political influence may eventually
be dismantled (4).
Seemingly far from the world of conservation science, drug policy reform could also
alleviate pressures on Central America’s rapidly disappearing forests. Mounting evidence
suggests that the trafficking of drugs (
principally cocaine) has become a crucial—and
overlooked—accelerant of forest loss in the
isthmus. A better understanding of this process is essential for anticipating how it might
be mitigated by specific drug policy reforms.
Overlapping Traffic and Deforestation
Since 2000, deforestation rates in Hondu-
ras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been
among the highest in Latin America and the
world; after 2005, the rates increased (5).
Forest loss is concentrated in the Carribbean
lowlands of the Mesoamerican Biologi-
cal Corridor, a globally important region
of exceptional biological diversity (6).
Forest loss in the corridor has long been
driven by multiple interacting forces: weak
governance, conflicting property regimes,
high poverty, climate change, illegal logging,
infrastructure megaprojects, and agribusiness
expansion (6, 7). But a compelling case can
be made for the ways in which the trafficking
of drugs has intensified these processes and
has become a powerful deforestation driver in
its own right.
One clue to this connection lies in the
close correlation between the timing and
location of forest loss and drug transit. Central America has long been a conduit for U. S.-bound cocaine from South America. But the
isthmus’ importance as a “bridge” exploded
after 2006–07, as Mexican drug-trafficking
organizations (DTOs) moved their smuggling
operations southward (2, 8). Porous borders,
corruption, and weak public institutions made
Guatemala and Honduras especially attractive to DTOs (3, 8), who increasingly routed
“primary” cocaine shipments (i.e., boats or
planes carrying cocaine directly from South
America) into Guatemala’s Petén and eastern Honduras (2, 9). Thinly populated and
with little state presence, these remote forest
frontiers offer ideal conditions for traffickers
evading interdiction (9).
As more cocaine flowed through east-
ern Honduras’ forest, loss rose apace (see
the graph); the large size of new patches of
detected deforestation (>5.29 ha) relative to
indigenous agricultural plots
(<2 ha) (10) points to the
presence of unusually well-
capitalized agents on the
ground. Similarly, in Gua-
temala’s Petén, an unprec-
edented number of primary
cocaine flows into the region
coincided with a period of
extensive forest loss (2006–
10) (2, 11).
“Hot spots” of deforestation often overlap
spatially with trafficking nodes, especially
near primary drug-transfer hubs in eastern
Nicaragua and eastern Honduras (6, 9). For
example, in 2011, Honduras’ Río Plátano
Biosphere Reserve was listed by UNESCO
as “World Heritage in Danger” because of
alarming rates of forest loss attributed to the
presence of narco-traffickers—as signaled by
multiple clandestine landing strips throughout the reserve.
In the contested rural landscapes of the
Petén (7), newer sites of primary drug transfer combine with established secondary
transshipment routes into Mexico. In Laguna
del Tigre National Park and protected areas
in the municipality of Sayaxché, the intensification of drug trafficking has been concurrent with annual forest loss rates there of 5%
and 10%, respectively (8, 11, 12). Cadastral
analyses confirm that narco-traffickers own
large ranches within Laguna del Tigre and
other protected areas (13, 14).
Landing Planes, Laundering Money
What explains the spatial and temporal overlap of drug trafficking and deforestation?
Strong causal evidence remains scarce, limited by classified data on traffickers’ illegal
activities and the hazards of in situ research.
Nevertheless, a growing number of studies
identify three interrelated mechanisms by
which forest loss follows the establishment of
a drug transit hub.
Drug Policy as Conservation
Kendra McSweeney,1 Erik A. Nielsen,2 Matthew J. Taylor,3 David J. Wrathall,4 Zoe Pearson,1
Ophelia Wang,2 Spencer T. Plumb5
Drug trafficking is taking a toll on Central
America’s biodiverse forests.
1Department of Geography, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA. 2School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University,
Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA. 3Department of Geography and
the Environment, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208,
USA. 4Institute for Environment and Human Security, United
Nations University, 53113 Bonn, Germany. 5College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844,
USA. *Corresponding author. firstname.lastname@example.org
Clandestine landing strip in a
protected area in eastern Honduras. This is used and maintained
exclusively for drug planes from
South America (23 May 2011).