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Drug trafficking threatens Central American forests in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and other nations

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 3rd, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Drug cartels in Central and South America has led to the deaths of countless unarmed men, women and children. Now, they pose a threat to the delicate ecology of the region as well: researchers say that traffickers are cutting down forests to make way for clandestine landing strips and roads to move drugs. The cartels are also converting forests into agribusinesses to launder their drug profits.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Researchers say that drug trafficking threatens forests in remote areas of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and nearby countries.

Kendra McSweeney, an associate professor of geography at The Ohio State University says that much of this appears to be a response to U.S.-led anti-trafficking efforts, especially in Mexico.

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"In response to the crackdown in Mexico, drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them to the United States," McSweeney said. "When drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them."

The amount of new deforestation per year has more than quadrupled in Honduras between 2007 and 2011, the same period when cocaine movements in the country also spiked.

A geographer who has done research in Honduras for more than 20 years, McSweeney has studied how indigenous people interact with their environment. The drug trade is not something she would normally investigate, but it has been impossible to ignore in recent years, she said.

"Starting about 2007, we started seeing rates of deforestation there that we had never seen before." Inquiries as to why, people would tell them "los narcos," or drug traffickers."

There were other indications of drug trafficking taking place in the area. "I would get approached by people who wanted to change $20 bills in places where cash is very scarce and dollars are not the normal currency. When that starts happening, you know narcos are there," she said.

McSweeney says that other researchers in Central America had similar stories.

"The emerging impacts of narco-trafficking were being mentioned among people who worked in Central America, but usually just as a side conversation. We heard the same kinds of things from agricultural specialists, geographers, conservationists. Several of us decided we needed to bring more attention to this issue."

McSweeney says deforestation starts with the clandestine roads and landing strips that traffickers create in the remote forests. The infusion of drug cash into these areas helps embolden resident ranchers, land speculators and timber traffickers to expand their activities. This is often at the expense of the indigenous people who are often key forest defenders.

Drug traffickers themselves convert forest to agriculture as a way to launder their money. While much of this land conversion occurs within protected areas and is therefore illegal, drug traffickers often use their profits to influence government leaders to look the other way.

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