Drug Traffic Tramples Central American Rain Forests

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Central America’s forests are becoming casualties in the drug war as narcotics traffic causes deforestation on several fronts, reports a recent paper in Science.

Drug traffickers clear trees to make landing strips for small planes loaded with cocaine from South America. The planes land in the remote forests of eastern Honduras and in the Peten region of Guatemala. Landing in sparsely policed areas of Central America allows the aircraft to avoid detection as they drop their cargo. The dope then travels by land or sea to the United States and other nations.

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Pay offs to local ranchers, oil-palm growers, land speculators and illegal timber traffickers fund the expansion of ranches and farms, which gnaw away at surrounding forests.

In addition, indigenous groups and small-scale farmers often lose their land to the drug-funded loggers, ranchers and others who benefit from the black market. Local police receive bribes to look the other way, while forests that provide building materials and medicine to indigenous peoples, disappear. Threats of violence keep conservation groups out of the smuggling corridors.

Smugglers are also buying ranches and plantations to launder drug money. These expansive “narco-estates” also serve as fortresses to fend off rival drug-running syndicates.

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Ecological devastation joins a long list of the burdens put upon poor countries by the United States’ emphasis on reducing the supply of drugs, wrote the Science paper’s authors. Focusing on reducing demand for drugs in the United States could prove to be a less environmentally damaging way to fight the drug war.

Illegal drug production damages ecosystems in the United States too. In the forests of California, unregulated, illegal marijuana growers divert scarce water to their clandestine ganja crops. And remote wilderness areas around the nation suffer pollution from methamphetamine labs set up by crank manufacturers fleeing police scrutiny.

Photo: Honduran soldiers guard 15 tons of seized cocaine, 300 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa in November, 2012. The drugs -- found in n underground vault operated as a laboratory -- were divided into 344 packs. STR/AFP/Getty Images