Narco-Deforestation: The New Price Of The War On Drugs

As a previous article on TalkingDrugs suggested, speculations that drug trafficking in the world has largely fuelled environmental degradation in producing regions have become popular in recent years. The basic assumption behind this theory is that criminal organisations generally destroy forests by eradicating any sort of spontaneous vegetation in order to grow illicit crops and create clandestine smuggling roads.

To confirm this position, a new paper in the journal Science has assessed the risks of the illicit production of drugs–heroin, coca and marijuana plantations–that is contributing to the loss of rain forests in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Here, rising drug trafficking activities are regarded to be correlated with growing deforestation rates.

Remarkably, however, the study has gained increasing popularity as a result of its critical overview of current anti-drug approaches in Latin America, which have allegedly contributed, along with the drug trade itself, to further environmental deterioration. As author and scientist McSweeney argues, the militarization of forests is the reason why in the past seven years deforestation has rose exponentially. In fact, following frequent military operations aimed at the eradication of illicit crops, traffickers generally move to different locations where they start the same process of land clearing and cultivation over again. In doing so, not only do they leave large areas in irreversibly damaged conditions, but they also devastate new ones.

In response to the crackdown in Mexico, drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them to the United States. Since then, in Honduras, both rates of deforestation and cocaine trafficking have quadrupled.

Although the indigenous population has so far been badly affected by the criminal environment that surrounds these areas, the study reveals that they are often too frightened to speak out. To this regard, the profits of the illegal business are so high that local political corruption has assured the regular flow of criminal activities at the expenses of poor people whose ecosystem is being devastated.

In light of these considerations, it appears clear that US-led militarized interdiction has been an utter failure, succeeding only in moving traffickers around and driving them to operate in ever-more remote bio-diverse ecosystems. This has led the authors of the paper to call for reforming the current anti-drug policy in the world, breaking with tradition of natural scientists who have for a long time felt that their work has nothing to do with drug policy. As McSweeney suggested, Western governments should shift the focus from eradication and supply-side policy to reducing demand, considering regulation, if not legalization in the case of soft drugs, as a viable alternative.

Along these lines, the displacement of illicit crops in rural areas of Central America—and its impact on rain forests and indigenous people—adds to broader social issues that the eradication of illegal cultivations brings about. Along with the environmental disruption of entire ecosystems, the social and economic consequences of interdiction on farmers, who are employed by criminal organisations, have also been largely ignored by the supporters of the War on Drugs. Having no other means to survive in an economic context which relies mainly on the black market, these people are deprived of their only source of income and left with no alternative.

In sum, as it is usually the case, disadvantaged people are ultimately the victims of the ideological conflict between the “bad” and “good” guys, namely criminals and governments. Unfortunately though, the latter are losing their war and, as they promise to continue the fight on behalf of the same people who they indirectly harm, the former are becoming richer and richer.