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Narco-deforestation : what is it and why forests are unseen victim of drugs?

One of the unseen victims of cocaine and marihuana uses are forests. There is even a term created to name the impact of drugs on forests and it is called “narco-deforestation”.  It happens not only in developing countries, but developed as well. In this post, I will present you two cases, where narco-deforestation takes place. Definitely, you will be suprised! 


Cocaine kills forests in Central America

Interestingly, not coca plantations, from which a cocaine is derived, are the main drivers behind the narco-deforestation in Central America. Actually, the term narco-deforestation, created by the researchers at the Oregon State University, indicates the process of using remote forested lands by the drug barons in order to launder their profits from the drug trade.

David Wrathall, an Oregon State University geographer and co-author of recenty published study in Environmental Research Letters, said:

“It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch. It is a major, unrecognized driver of tropical deforestation in Central America.”

According to the study, cocaine trafficking may be responsible for up to 30 percent of the total forest loss in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua over the past decade.

D. Wrathall in the interview given to OregonLive mentioned that this narco-deforestation process could have been inicialized by the so-called “war on drugs” perpetrated by law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

He added:

“Starting in the early 2000s, the United States-led drug enforcement in the Caribbean and Mexico pushed drug traffickers into places that were harder to patrol, like the large, forested areas of central America. A flood of illegal drug money entered these places and these drug traffickers needed a way that they could spend it.”

Finally, Wrathall suggests few possible solutions to solve the problem of the deforestation in Central America. First one is related to de-escalation and demilitarization of the wor on drugs. Second idea is to strenghten the position of indigenous people, so they can maintain stewardship of the forested lands. This idea was few times mentioned at Forest Monitor discussed also before on Forest Monitor, for instance here:

>>READ ALSO: How decentralized policies can help to reduce deforestation?

Wrath summed this issue in the following manner:

“The indigenous people who have lived sustainably in these environments are being displaced as the stewards of the land. These are very important ecological areas with tremendous biodiversity that may be lost.”

Marijuana kills forests in North America

Second case of narco-deforestation is completely different, and it refers to a “green rush”, which has hit Humboldt county in California (USA) by Bulgarians, Laotians, Texans, who flood into the county and set up industrial-scale marijuana farms. Everything started when California fully legalized marijuana, and since that moment the process expanded in almost exponential scale. Growers have fragmented forests by cutting trees to build greenhouses and roads on steep hillsides. See the movie below, which shows the situation in the Humboldt county in 2012.

The narration voice in the movie talks about around 600 spots in year 2012/2013. When I was at the Mapping the Course 2017 Symposium, I have heared, from one gentelmen from Humboldt county, who was giving a presentation, about over 10 000 spots in 2017. 

>>READ MORE: What can wood industry expect in North America, in 2017?

The biggest concernt with this example of narco-deforestation is related to the redwood ecosystem that Humboldt environmentalists have spent decades fighting to save and restore.

Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, said in 2016 to EcoWatch portal:

“The single biggest threat to our environment right now has been unregulated cannabis. In the last 20 years we’ve seen a massive exponential growth in cannabis production in the hills of Humboldt County and we’ve seen really devastating environmental effects.”

Personally, I also looked now at the Humbold county in the Googl Map, and the picture of these forests looks really terrible. In the photos below, you can see the zoom to single greenhouses in the southern part of Humbold county, next to the Briceland.


Source: Sessnie E et al. 2017. A spatio-temporal analysis of forest loss related to cocaine trafficking in Central America. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 5. 

Main photo: The marijuana is legalized in the Western United States (e.g. Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California and Alaska) for recreational use. This photo has been taken in Seattle, WA. Author: Rafal Chudy

2 thoughts on “Narco-deforestation : what is it and why forests are unseen victim of drugs?

  1. Hey,
    great article there, haven’t heard of this one so far. However, at least the cocaine section was for my taste a bit short. So I wanted to ask: Dr. Wrathall’s quote you used states: “It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch.” – could you elaborate on this? Are they actually using all their money earned from drug trafficking to buy cattle? Or are they storing the drugs there? I’m sorry, but I’m not too familiar with the whole drug business, so thanks for explaining!

    1. Hi Anna, probably not all, but I guess that significant part that they want to launder. Based on my knowledge from “Narcos” Netflix TV series, drug barons rather do not keep drugs in their haciendas. In order to launder illegal money, they buy real estate, cattle, art, vines etc.
      They have people who take care about drugs. Narco barons are more like managers, who are very clean, and it is sometimes impossible to prove that they are involved in any narco-business.

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