Drug trafficking and the corresponding ‘war on drugs’ are driving deforestation in Central America, two new reports published by Fundación Neotropica and the PRISMA Foundation think tank have found.

Military efforts to tackle cocaine traffickers have instead pushed them into remote forests, where the shadowy underground economy they build has a devastating effect on the environment, the researchers said. The economic impact on the region’s protected forests is at least $215m per year, they found.

The researchers took remote satellite images to locate where deforestation is occurring, and carried out nearly 100 interviews with local protected area managers, residents and non-profit leaders. They found that large tropical forests in Guatemala and Honduras are particularly affected, while Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica are also impacted.

The problem has become worse as the current US government has moved towards investing ‘war on drugs’ money into military rather than humanitarian aid, said Jennifer Devine, assistant professor of geography at Texas State University and co-author of the two studies.

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“Military approaches to solve the problem of drug trafficking have pushed traffickers who want to evade drug seizures into remote, isolated areas which are often protected areas, and forests in particular,” she said.

The traffickers then clear forests to create hundreds of air strips to land planes full of cocaine coming from the Andes. Drug traffickers also deforest protected lands to launder drug money, through industries such as illegal cattle ranching and palm oil production, said Devine.

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The papers highlight the profound costs driven by drug deforestation, said Andrew Davis, director of the Forest and Territorial Governance Program of the PRISMA Foundation. “They also underscore a recognised but under-reported fact, that drug trafficking and interdiction policy is contributing to climate change,” he said.

According to the researchers, the focus should be on having protected areas managed by local communities and community-based organisations. These tend to fare much better than the national parks managed by the state which are supposed to be “people-less”, added Devine.

“The solution to this problem is to rethink approaches to the war on drugs,” she said. “I think that few people fully appreciate that the war on drugs is driving environmental crisis in Central America.”

A previous study published in 2017 found that cocaine trafficking was responsible for 30 to 60 per cent of deforestation in Central America’s protected areas in the previous decade.


Jocelyn is a freelance climate and science journalist.