Jeremy Hance, a leading environmental journalist, tells us about some surprising ways that illegal-drug producers are affecting nature:
When we think about agriculture and deforestation, we tend to imagine forests being felled for crops such as oil palm, soy, and cattle pastures.
But picture this too: landscapes heavily dotted with coca and marijuana plots.
That’s because illegal-drug producers are a much bigger driver of forest destruction than most people realize.
In Colombia—one of the world’s biologically richest nations—the lure of cocaine production is drawing illegal settlers into remote frontier areas.
In such areas, law enforcement is limited and the illicit settlers are accelerating destructive forest loss, wildlife poaching, and carbon emissions.
A different dynamic is enveloping Central America. There, wealthy coke barons are land-grabbing—buying up cattle ranches and oil palm plantations to launder their huge profits.
Such profits total more than $100 billion annually, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
In Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, wealthy drug traffickers are estimated to cause 15 to 30 percent of all forest loss—and a shocking 30 to 60 percent of all forest destruction inside parks and protected areas.
And, as the traffickers carve their way into forests, they open them up to further impacts such as slash-and-burn farming and illegal gold mining (see this quick video).
In Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park, for example, drug traffickers cut a secret airstrip as well as illegal cattle ranches deep inside the park’s boundaries.
In the U.S., marijuana growers are stealing their way into national parks and public lands, clearing native vegetation and spraying toxic pesticides.
War on Drugs?
Clearly, for the environment, illicit drugs and their producers are far from harmless. But what can we do about them?
Some people argue that we must crack down harder on drug producers.
Others, however, say that we need to face a tough reality.
Illegal drug production isn’t going to stop, they say. Instead of getting more aggressive, we should actually focus on de-escalating the war on drugs.
This is because, when drug and law enforcers get rough, they just end up pushing drug growers further into wild places and protected areas.
A better strategy, the argument goes, would be to legalize drugs like marijuana, so they can be grown beyond the shadows. Rather than driving habitat destruction, drug producers could then be creating legal jobs and tax revenues.
There’s plenty of room for debate here.
Regardless of where you might stand, one thing is clear: Narco-trafficking isn’t just a social or law-enforcement issue.
It’s a whacking big environmental issue too.