The jungles in Guatemala’s northern reaches are some of the most biodiverse forests north of the Amazon. They’re one of the last remaining homes for jaguars, tapirs, and scarlet macaws. And they’re being systematically destroyed.
There are a number of factors that contribute to deforestation in Guatemala, but the impact of drug trafficking has had a measurable effect. Drug traffickers set up shop in the region, grabbing up land and tearing down trees to build landing strips for airplanes, or to set up farms, which they use to launder money. Narco-deforestation, as it’s known, has long been a problem, but America’s opioid epidemic is almost certainly making it worse.
It’s a link that hasn’t yet been made by researchers, but data from conservation, drug policy, and health literature add up to a compelling indication that our addiction to painkillers is playing a role in the destruction of this precious ecosystem.
Widespread addiction to opioid painkillers like OxyContin has expanded the US market for heroin, which is almost identical chemically to prescription opioids. Heroin is also usually cheaper than pills, can be more readily available, and is more potent. With more demand for heroin in the US, drug cartels in Central and South America have even more incentive to continue tearing down the rainforests, and statistics show that deforestation has continued to climb right along pace with our growing appetite for heroin.
I first learned about this connection during a reporting trip to central Guatemala. Fascinated by the networks at play influencing the opioid epidemic in the US, I was curious if it had had any impact in Central America. So one afternoon, while driving to visit some indigenous midwives in the hilly, bucolic Tecpán region, I turned to my interpreter to ask if she knew whether the drug trade had changed at all in recent years.
She nodded emphatically, telling me it’s “gotten worse,” and that drug cartels in the north of the country were “chopping down the rainforest.”
“Is it just cocaine?” I asked her.
“Cocaine,” she acknowledged. “But heroin, too.”
Between 1990 and 2005, 17 percent of Guatemala’s total forest cover was torn down—a loss of roughly half a million hectares of trees—according to the European Space Agency, which tracks deforestation using satellite imagery. It’s continued at a similar pace since then, particularly in the ecologically vulnerable rainforest areas, where an increase in drug trafficking coincided with as much as 10 percent forest loss between 2006 and 2010, according to study published in Science.
And it’s only getting worse.
“It hasn’t slowed down in the last four years,” said Matthew Taylor, a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Denver, who has studied the impacts of drug trafficking on the environment. “From speaking with my sources and from evidence from being in the field, it’s increasing.”
Though agriculture and logging account for a large portion of this deforestation in Central and South America, the narco-deforestation has played a significant role, too. The actual cultivation of drugs like cocaine and heroin has an impact: The Organization of American States estimates that 2.5 million hectares of Amazonian forest in Peru have been destroyed to grow coca, while more than 1 million hectares of forest in Colombia have been culled to grow illicit drugs, including opium poppies for heroin.
But in Central America, the drug-related deforestation is caused instead by all of the activities surrounding the trafficking side of the supply chain, according to Kendra McSweeney, the study author and a professor of geography at Ohio State University.
“[Traffickers] need a lot of land through which to move drugs,” McSweeney told me. “In order to secure those routes, they like to buy up the land and cut forests for landing planes, landing boats, unloading, reloading, and driving out by car.”
Drug cartels also buy land and cut down forests to establish cattle ranches, which make handy businesses through which to launder money, McSweeney explained. It also gives them a diversification option: If the drug route gets cracked down, they still own the land, which they can sell off for major profits, since the original sale is usually made under duress (you can’t really negotiate real estate prices with a drug cartel).
“These are totally dynamics made in the USA, no question.”
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