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Drug smuggling activities accelerate deforestation in Central America

From clearing forests for landing strips and using drug money to convert forested areas into agricultural land, trafficking activities are having an effect on the environment in Central America.

By Ananth Baliga
Drug smuggling activities accelerate deforestation in Central America
Guatemala is one of the countries where drug trafficking activities have moved after the crackdown in Mexico. (CC:Pati Gaitan)

TOKYO, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Central America's drug trafficking activities are having an inadvertent effect on its forests, where trees are being cut down to facilitate landing strips.

Forests in Guatemala and Honduras have seen increased deforestation on account of the building of landing strips and an influx of drug money that is encouraging ranchers and oil palm growers to expand their activities.

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Due to the crackdown of drug trafficking activities in Mexico, Central American countries have become the transit location for drugs being transferred from countries like Colombia to major U.S. cities. Large tracts of land have been cleared in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua to accommodate for these activities.

"A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 sq km per year," said lead author Dr Kendra McSweeney from Ohio State University. "Under the narco-effect, we see over 60 sq km per year. In some parts of Guatemala, the rates are even higher. We're talking up to 10% deforestation rates, which is just staggering."

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The core of the problem arises from the building of roads and airstrips in the middle of the forest. The increased number of illegal airstrips in Honduras prompted Unesco to declare the Rio Platano biosphere reserve as a "world heritage in danger," in 2011.

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Other historical factors also contribute to this deforestation, such as agribusiness expansion, weak governments, internal conflicts. But these overlapped with the trafficking issue are affecting not only the forests but the communities that live in them as well.

Conservation groups are routinely threatened by drug cartels and local communities are too afraid to speak out.

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Traffickers are finding real value in converting forests into agricultural lands, helping them launder their drug cash and also generate influence in the region. According to McSweeney, who was part of the research and now published in the journal Science, the war on drugs only increases the scattering of these activities impacting larger areas.

"Once you start fighting them, you scatter them into more remote locales and greater areas become impacted, more people get involved and you raise their profits as they put a risk premium on their products," said McSweeney.

[United Nations University] [BBC] [ScienceMag]

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