Narco-Deforestation: Linking Drug Policy and Forest Conservation

The forests stretching from Mexico through Central America have some of the richest species diversity on the planet. But despite expansive conservation efforts, this region continues to face staggering rates of forest destruction. While many of the overlapping forces driving this plight are well-documented — such as agribusiness expansion, weak governance and conflicting property regimes — there has been much less attention devoted to the environmental impacts from the region’s drug trafficking.

Drug routes affect deforestation rates

A new article published in the journal Science, co-authored by United Nations University researcher Dr. David Wrathall, provides compelling evidence that flows of drugs through the Americas are directly related to deforestation rates in North America’s most biodiverse and biosensitive region. The article, “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation” is the result of collaboration between researchers at the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and four US universities: The Ohio State University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Denver and the University of Idaho.

The article spotlights forest loss in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), a cross-border initiative established in 1998 to link ecosystems and bio-conservation efforts in Mexico and Central America while promoting sustainable social and economic development. But the stakeholders and policy mechanisms that support these efforts are increasingly in conflict with drug trafficking organizations.

Remote forests, such as those of the MBC, are prized conservation areas — but they are also the golden spike in the drug trade, providing ideal transit hub locations for clandestine airplane landing strips and hidden roads. The researchers note that “by infusing already weakly governed frontiers with unprecedented amounts of cash and weapons”, drug trafficking is able to “narco-capitalize” other resident stakeholders in these remote forests, such as ranchers and oil palm growers.

The result is a “militarization” of forests where drug profits can be laundered through land purchases and agricultural conversion of protected forest areas. Much of the social burden from this corruption and violence falls on indigenous groups and smallholder farmers.

Drug policy is conservation policy

“Forest communities are literally caught in a battle between government interdiction forces and the narco-traffickers. It is terrifying and alienating for these communities, who are really our last hope for conservation,” said Wrathall, a UNU-EHS Associate Academic Officer.

Narco-Deforestation Linking Drug Policy and Forest Conservation

Photo: © David Wrathall

The fact that drug crop eradication policies can push growers further into sensitive ecosystems is well documented. But the article references a parallel (but less-investigated) effect from drug trafficking interdiction programmes, which are deflecting drug traffickers, and their ecological impact, to new forest areas. This is a reminder to the international conservation community that “drug policy is conservation policy” and that continued protection of these ecosystems depends on an alternative policy approach to drug flows.

The article appeals for “careful interdisciplinary research … to address empirical uncertainties regarding the magnitude and dynamics of the narco-trafficking–deforestation relation, especially how narco-capital (via money laundering and bribery) influences environmental governance, rural development trajectories, and ecosystem services”.

Moving forward

Wrathall notes two goals in moving ahead: “First, we need a better scientific understanding of the social and environmental consequences of narco-trafficking and interdiction. And second, we need good evidence-based policy that considers these social and natural impacts.”

“I am certain that this would lead us to the conclusion that we can involve communities in solutions. For example, forests that are customary lands could be granted to specific communities and protected in trusts and national parks. That way, land would have legal protection even if it were temporarily disturbed by a clandestine runway. In the long term, when the issue of cocaine trafficking has passed, these lands could be returned to forest.”

The article concludes that while “drug policy innovations alone will never end deforestation in Central America … rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits”.


“Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation” is available on the Science website (subscription required).

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Daniel Powell

Principal Communications SpecialistUnited Nations University

Daniel Powell is the Principal Communications Specialist at UNU Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan where he leads content development, working closely with UN researchers to shape compelling science communication. Before joining UNU in 2012, he spent eight years based in South-East Asia working with research, sustainable development, and photography projects ranging from agriculture, biodiversity, and public health to civil society and migration. Prior to his years in Asia, Daniel was a field/lab biologist with the United States Forest Service specialising in forest mycology and lichenology.