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Global Ideas

Drug-driven environmental devastation

Drug trafficking is one of the biggest problems facing Central America. It is having a devastating impact on the people, but it's also a huge threat to the rainforest and coastal ecosystems.

Soft beige sand stretches down to the water where surfers laze on their boards waiting for the next wave to deliver them back to the shore. This particular scene plays out in Mexico, but could be set on many a Central American Pacific beach where tourists sip tropical cocktails and lap up the sun. Yet behind the tranquility of some of these idyllic settings is an altogether darker substance.

Drug trafficking is one of the greatest challenges facing Mexico. Thousands of people die in narcotics-related crimes every year, and the U.S. government estimates some 90 percent of cocaine entering the country arrives via its southern border.

But one of the lesser known victims of the war on drugs in Mexico is the environment whose forest and coastal ecosystems are severely affected by the illegal trade. All the way from the southerly part of the country to the Amazon forest in South America, land is cleared to make way for coca and marijuana crops, roads and even landing strips. But cartels are also involved in illegal logging and cattle farming, which Karina Benessaiah, a PhD candidate at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, says is even more harmful.

"Money laundering often involved investing in activities that may reinforce overharvesting of resources," Benessaiah explains. "In terrestrial systems, we see narco-traffickers investing in cattle ranching, often in or close to remote protected areas."

Counterproductive counter-measures?

Deforestation, Brazil

Drug traffickers are being pushed into remote areas of the Amazon. There they have a huge impact on the rainforest. It's a problem being exacerbated by the war on drugs, say researchers

But Kendra McSweeney, professor of geography at Ohio State University, who researches drug policy and conservation, says efforts to stop trafficking are also having a crushing effect on the environment.

"The land used for the cultivation of drugs is tiny, absolutely trivial," she said. "But because interdiction pushes them out of areas where they would be grown normally, even though only a small amount is cultivated, it is cultivated in some of the most vulnerable, fragile, biodiverse environments in the region."

What's more, because cartels know they're likely to be moved on at some point, they make the most of the land while they have it.

"Drug traffickers are nothing if not consummate entrepreneurs and capitalists," McSweeney adds. "To capitalize on their investment in a given transit hub, they buy up land in the middle of a biosphere reserve."

Although such purchases are strictly illegal, McSweeney says cartels have money and guns enough to bribe and coerce indigenous communities into handing over their land. "They act with all impunity," she says. "Compared to traditional threats to the rainforest, these guys are a whole other category of menace."

Inherent dangers

Bolivien und das Kokain

People across Central and South America and coerced through money and violence to work for traffickers picking coca leaves

And the situation is similar in parts of South America. According to an Open Society Foundation (OSF) report on the" Impact of Drug Policy on the Environment authored by McSweeney and published in December, in Colombia alone "2,910 square kilometers of primary forest are estimated to have been lost to coca cultivation between 2001 and 2014."

Citing a journal article, the paper says forest loss as a result of the drug trade in the Amazon between Colombia and Peru is due to "a migratory cycle of eradication, relocation, boom, eradication, and relocation ignited by…coca elimination in the Andean foothills."

Given the violent nature of the narcotics trade, it is hard to measure the exact impact of drug trafficking on the environment. Indeed the OSF report warns that in speaking out on the issue, "environmental activists, including indigenous and peasant leaders, park rangers and journalists" open themselves up to the possibility of threat and in some cases even death.

Satellite imagery can be used to track areas of deforestation and thereby gauge the environmental impact of the narcotics trade. But it is doesn't work everywhere.

Turning a blind eye

Symbolbild Kokain

Around 90 percent of the cocaine arriving in the US comes through Mexico

Back on the Mexican beach, fishermen wait next to their upturned boats. Some sift through their almost empty nets looking at the morning's meagre catch, while others offer to take passing tourists out to sea to spot whales or other marine life.

Here, and in other villages along the coast, it's more difficult to systematically assess the situation that could be caused through drug trafficking.

"You can't see changes in fisheries using satellite imagery," says Benessaiah, adding there are other less technical ways of registering change. For instance, fishermen involved in drug trafficking would in theory be able to invest in better fishing boats, which means they would be able to catch more fish. "Thus, it can affect fishery resources as well as local fishermen who can't compete."

And that puts more pressure on other fishermen to find an alternative source of income. It's a vicious circle in which McSweeney would like to see the conservation community taking more of a stand.

"They pretend it's not happening and go along with business as usual," she said. "The fact is they are well aware of the problem, in many cases have pulled personnel out of areas that have become too hot. Yet they are not speaking up."

She hopes meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem scheduled for this spring will help tackle the problem. She is not expecting a miracle, but concedes "the fact that these meetings are happening at all is huge and bodes well for the beginning of a new era of real drug reform."

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