Global rates of deforestation are at a record high. Although forest still covers around 30% of the planet’s surface, current estimates predict that the world’s rainforests could completely disappear within the next 100 years. A growing body of evidence is now indicating that, amongst many other factors, drug trafficking could be contributing significantly to the deforestation of Central America.

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Since 2006, a crackdown on drugs in Mexico has forced Drug Trafficking Organisations (DTOs) into Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. These countries, with thinly populated areas and corrupt governments, are particularly attractive to both growers and traffickers of cocaine and marijuana. A sharp rise in extensive forest loss in these regions between 2007 and 2011 has coincided with increased drugs flow. Evidence to show a causal relationship between deforestation and DTO activity is thin, partly due to dangers associated with research, and partly because records of DTOs’ illegal activities remain classified. Despite this, recent studies have identified various key mechanisms to explain the relationship.

DTOs bring large amounts of violence to an area, causing governments to look the other way, rendering areas unsafe for conservationists, and displacing indigenous populations. This enables roads and landing strips to be carved out of the forest to aid drug transport. In addition, pre-existing landowners such as oil palm growers and timber traffickers become involved with DTOs, benefitting through monetary gain, and allowing them to expand their activities further into the forest. The DTOs themselves can get involved in agriculture in order to mask their illegal activities. The result is never-ending conversion of forest to agriculture.

The introduction of tighter drug eradication policies compounds these problems as both growers and DTOs move into more remote regions to avoid crackdowns. The remoteness of these areas goes hand in hand with ecological sensitivity, and the environmental effects of their destruction can be substantial.
It is clear then, that drug policy is in fact conservation policy. Interdisciplinary research is required to quantify the extent of the correlation between deforestation and drug trafficking. Solid evidence can be used to inform policy makers. What is more, well thought out drug policy reforms are required to help reduce pressures on remaining areas of rainforest.