Narco-deforestation: Drug traffickers are slashing and burning the forests of Central America
A new study shows that drug smuggling in Central America is causing a significant increase in the rate of deforestation. Forests in countries like Honduras and Guatemala are removed to allow the construction of roads and secret landing strips used for drug trafficking, as well as to launder dirty money. "The scientists believe the influx of drug cash encourages ranchers, timber traffickers and oil palm growers to expand their activities," writes the BBC. Part of this increase in activity was apparently caused by a shift to these countries by illicit drug producers and smugglers after a crackdown in Mexico about 7 years ago.
In Honduras, for example, the area affected by large-scale deforestation each year went up by more than 4x between 2007-2011, which parallels an increase in cocaine smuggling in the country. Before the jump, deforestation might have been 20 square kilometers per year, but 2011, a peak year, saw close to 175 sq. kms destroyed, with a new average of over 60 sq. kms.
The drug money also causes problems with those who are trying to help. Officials are bribed, conservation groups are threatened ("Honduras now has the world's highest homicide rate."), and local farmers and ranchers are encouraged to expand their activities.
This deforestation is used by drug traffickers to launder part of their gains:
The drug dealers themselves often see advantages in converting the forests into agricultural land.
Buying and clearing the forests helps launder profits, and the traffickers usually have enough political influence to ensure their titles to the land are not contested.
Through this process, the "improved" land can then be sold on to corporate concerns.
In this way, what was once forest is permanently lost to agriculture. (source)
Something must be done, but it's not clear what. Local government and law enforcement certainly needs to play a role, but raising awareness with the international community so they can offer support is also a good idea.