Half a century after President Richard Nixon declared drug use “America’s public enemy number one,” U.S.-led efforts to combat drug trafficking abroad have had mixed political consequences. Now, new studies show the “war on drugs” could be having another unintended consequence: contributing to climate change.
Jennifer Devine, assistant professor of geography at Texas State University, describes this phenomenon as “narco deforestation.” She says drug traffickers will move into remote, protected rainforest areas near international borders, claim territory, clear the trees and erect cattle ranches. From there, they hide their air strips, launder money and to evade military crackdowns.
“When people think of drug trafficking activities they normally don’t think of environmental impacts,” Devine says. “They deforest primary rainforests remaining in Central America and plant pasture for cattle ranching, so it is a direct contribution to deforestation.”
Devine says illegal deforestation in protected areas is blamed on poor farmers, when the true drivers of this deforestation are drug traffickers. The studies estimate narco deforestation contributes to more than 80% of deforestation in protected areas. She says deforestation is not the only environmental issue affected by drug trafficking.
“Environmental impacts differ from country to country and it reflects the different role each country and each protected area plays in the supply route, so we’re not just talking about deforestation, there are many other environmental impacts,” Devine says.
Since the war on drugs’ inception, $3 trillion has been spent combating the sale and use of drugs, while usage, and the purity of drugs available have only increased, Devine says. She says her team offers alternative solutions to combating this issue, like investing in indigenous and community control over protected lands, which she says have been found to be more resilient against narco land grabs.
“Rather than investing money in Black Hawk helicopters for Central American militaries, the U.S. should be investing in indigenous land-titling and community resource management programs which both alleviate poverty. They mitigate migration to the United States and they undermine the territorial grasp of drug cartels in Central America,” Devine says.
Written by Savana Dunning.