Science AMA Series: We're Steve Sesnie (US Fish and Wildlife Service), Beth Tellman (Arizona State University) and David Wrathall (Oregon State University) from the Landscapes in Transformation - Central America Team: we study the impact of cocaine trafficking on tropical forests in Central America


Our analysis published this week in Environmental Research Letters (16 May 2017) estimates that cocaine trafficking is responsible for 30% of annual deforestation since the 2000 in the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Roughly 87 per cent of the cocaine trafficked to consumers in North America moves through Central America, leaving an estimated $6 billion US dollars in illegal profits in the region annually. Since the early 2000s, the impact of drug-trafficking and related money laundering has become key driver of land use changes, like cattle ranching, associated with forest loss in Central America. Most of the "narco-deforestation" we identified occurred in biodiversity hotspots, and around 30 to 60 per cent of the annual loss happened within official protected areas --national parks and UN World Heritage Sites-- threatening conservation efforts to preserve biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.

Our paper describes the method we used to come to this conclusion. We'll be back at 12 pm ET (9 am PT) to answer your questions, Ask us anything!

Edit 1: Links to our recent paper in Environmental Research Letters:, and a previous paper from our team in Science: (behind a paywall, sorry). See you at 12pm EST/9am PST!

Edit 2: Hi folks, thanks so much for the interest ---we're signing on now, AMA!

Edit 3: We'll be on for another 45 minutes (until about 11:30am PST/2:30pm EST). Sincere thanks, Reddit Science, for your interest in our work!!

Edit 4: Landscapes in Transformation- Central America Team signing off! A deep bow of thanks for the conversation!!!

I had no idea this was even a thing. How'd you decide to research this?


David here: I never meant to study this stuff. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras at the beginning of what we now call the “cocaine boom” the mid-2000s. Signs of drug trafficking were everywhere. I started my PhD work on flooding in coastal towns in Honduras, and in one flood-affected village people started telling me said: "you want to know why we have flooding? We have a problem in our watersheds --you're gonna have to see this to believe it." So I spent a couple of weeks in the watersheds. It was like every narco-trafficker in the entire region suddenly decided he needed a gigantic narco-ranch in Eastern Honduras. Millions of acres of biodiverse jungle converted into pasture --all at the same time! Well....that's definitely going to leave a mark in the satellite data.

...and I just wanted to know why it flooded so much!

I had no idea this was even a thing. How'd you decide to research this?


I had no idea this was even a thing. How'd you decide to research this?

Steven here: I’ve conducted land change studies in Central America (Costa Rica) starting with my dissertation work in 2002. This was something new brought to my attention by my friend and colleague Erik Nielsen, a coauthor on the present paper.

Drug trafficking is an understudied driver of forest change that is not widely discussed. I was motivated to work on this topic during an interdisciplinary workshop in 2015 at Ohio State University, where we began to develop new ways to determine the impact of drug trafficking on tropical forest.

I had no idea this was even a thing. How'd you decide to research this?


Beth here: I saw David present about this at a conference. At the time I was doing research in El Salvador and I saw a lot of social and environmental change and increase in violence due to organized crime. I always felt in El Salvador that gangs get blamed for all the violence- but really organized crime has a big effect on this and other Central American countries. Soon after talking to David, he invited me to join a workshop at Ohio State. Steve and I closed ourselves in a room for 3 days and began to brainstorm how we could use new deforestation data sets (Like Hansen et al 2013) could help us understand these dynamics we were seeing on the ground- and generalize them at a regional level. As a geographer with remote sensing and GIS skills, it was a perfect way for me to contribute to this larger research group. I have done field work in El Salvador and Nicaragua with this project, and have since become very passionate about the topic as I have seen with my own eyes communities and forests transformed by the drug war and interdiction policies.

I had no idea this was even a thing. How'd you decide to research this?


We should also say that the Landscapes in Transformation - Central America Team is pretty large and multidisciplinary. There are a bunch of us, and collectively we have decades of experience working in these countries. Some of us prefer to remain anonymous.

I once read that piracy off the coast of certain African countries led to increased pressure on forests for bushmeat because fish were limited as a protein source. What are some unexpected​ effects of narco-forestry on other seamingly unrelated natural resources?


Beth Here: Fish and Coastal impacts are actually one of the unexpected impacts we see. Some researchers on our team for example are studying oil palm and the effects on coastal reefs. This is because oil palm (another common way to launder money) causes a lot of sedimentation and chemicals that kill coral reefs. I also found in field work in Nicaragua that sedimentation from deforestation was changing the levels of lakes and lagoons, and disrupting the local shrimp populations that communities relied on for food.

In Nicaragua there are many endangered species- like the Tapir- that need large tracts of forests to survive. See for more tapir research.

Also in Nicaragua we noticed highly capitalized fishing operations --that is, people fishing with fancier boats, nets, and traps that allow them to catch more fish-- which could put pressure on local fish populations. Yet on the other hand, we also heard of fisherman leaving the fish industry and instead searching the coastline for cocaine packets that would wash up. So the fishery-cocaine connection needs further study.

How much of this deforestation is directly related to drug trade activities (i.e. runways, drug transport hubs, ect) vs indirectly due to money laundering related activities (cattle ranching, timber extraction, ect)?

Also, I noticed there was a decline in both drug shipments and deforestation in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua towards the recent end of the date range examined (c. 2009 in figure 8). Do you have any guesses as to why this decrease occurred? And do you have any more recent data that you could speak to (even if informally)?

Here is a link the to actual paper, and Here is an article I found that is based on the paper.


A growing body of evidence suggests that criminal activities associated with drug trafficking networks are a progressively important driver of forest loss in Central America. However, the scale at which drug trafficking represents a driver of forest loss is not presently known. We estimated the degree to which narcotics trafficking may contribute to forest loss using an unsupervised spatial clustering of 15 spatial and temporal forest loss patch metrics developed from global forest change data. We distinguished anomalous forest loss from background loss patches for each country exhibiting potential 'narco-capitalized' signatures which showed a statistically significant dissimilarity from other patches in terms of size, timing, and rate of forest loss. We also compared annual anomalous forest loss with the number of cocaine shipments and volume of cocaine seized, lost, or delivered at country- and department-level. For Honduras, results from linear mixed effects models showed a highly significant relationship between anomalous forest loss and the timing of increased drug trafficking (F = 9.90, p = 0.009) that also differed significantly from temporal patterns of background forest loss (t-ratio = 2.98, p = 0.004). Other locations of high forest loss in Central America showed mixed results. The timing of increased trafficking was not significantly related to anomalous forest loss in Guatemala and Nicaragua, but significantly differed in patch size compared to background losses. We estimated that cocaine trafficking could account for between 15% and 30% of annual national forest loss in these three countries over the past decade, and 30% to 60% of loss occurred within nationally and internationally designated protected areas. Cocaine trafficking is likely to have severe and lasting consequences in terms of maintaining moist tropical forest cover in Central America. Addressing forest loss in these and other tropical locations will require a stronger linkage between national and international drug interdiction and conservation policies.

Edit: cannibalized this comment to post my questions.


Steve here: We were not able to distinguish between these different factors specifically, but the clandestine airstrips are extremely small patches that the traffickers want to conceal. The clearing of larger forest areas for pasture and timber extraction go hand in hand, but often there are only a few tree species of high value such as mahogany or cedar that are actually removed.

Most of what we are detecting with our algorithm are large pastures being established in very remote areas, far from roads and law enforcement. In the specific locations that we have identified in the paper, these are often individuals (traffickers) laundering money through illegal lands markets where there is little law enforcement.

There is also land speculation going on where other individuals are clearing land to increase its value which can be purchased as a mechanism to launder money, used for cattle ranching and then possibly sold. That is the way that illegal profits can be legitimized once invested in an agricultural use.

After your findings, what would be the next reasonable solution to mitigate this loss? I know stopping the cocaine trade is next to impossible. Do you see providing cartels with incentives to use sustainable eco-friendly practices, coupled with law enforcement, part of the solution?


Steve here: This is a good question, and you are correct in the assumption that stopping the trade is close to impossible. If there is demand and consumption and a high profit, we are likely to see a continued flow of drugs. I am not sure we are able to interact with cartels in the way you suggest unless there is some sort of ‘green-cocaine’ market that emerged. As long as cutting forest to establish pasture is an easy way to launder money, it is likely to continue.

As for law enforcement, one thing that has come to our attention is that strong property rights, particularly for indigenous people could go a long way to protective forest. Where property rights are uncertain, this can result in illegal lands grabs as we have seen in some protected areas. Unfortunately, law enforcement activities in these remote spaces results in expropriation of the poorest farmers, that may be complicit in forest clearing, but are not the true culprit driving this type of land change.

I would like to see US policy take a turn away from excessive interdiction and focus more attention on development policies that improve the social and economic situation in Central America. Interdiction tends to move trafficking around and with it the ill effects to the environment and human security.

I'm aware that cattle ranching drives forest loss, but how does drug smuggling connect to cattle ranching? Is the smuggling connected to other forest-loss activities, and is it a major source of deforestation aside form such ancillary activities?


Beth Here: The connection between smuggling and cattle ranching is mainly due to the need to launder large illegal profits in US dollars (IN CASH!!!) as drugs move through the region. A few of our team members have a great article coming out soon that explains in detail how this works. Land is a good investment for illegal money- you can buy it in cash, and register a cattle business and lie about your profits. The value of land tends to increase overtime, so a land speculation market begins to develop to even FURTHER increase profits!

Cattle are also used to smuggle cocaine across borders because it can travel in the stomachs of animals for extended periods of time. This has been covered in Central American media. See

Another major driver of forest loss other than narco cattle is mono crop agriculture. Oil palm for example, has been a major driver of deforestation in the Peten in Guatemala- see a recent article for details.

Do you think USA ending the "War on Drugs" would have any positive impact on trafficking, and therefore reduce the deforestation occuring?


It’s hard to say what would happen if we ended the Drug War, but we are confident that the reason drugs began surging into Central America in the mid-2000s is BECAUSE of an escalation of the drug war. In the early 2000s US-led regional drug enforcement cracked down on flights and boats crossing the Caribbean, while at the same time Mexico and Colombia both forcefully ramped up their anti-narcotics policies.

So, the lowest-risk place to route the drugs became Central America. In fact, during one point in time, ~95% of suspect flights originating from South America were landing in Eastern Honduras.

It’s “whack-a-mole”: traffickers are nimble, well-connected, and well-financed. They will manage to get the drugs through, but they may have to move into new areas. That’s what our paper shows! Interdiction spread trafficking nodes throughout the region. Wherever the nodes were established, we see tons of deforestation.

We do know that the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions is talking about a return to the worst policies of the War on Drugs: militarization, etc. It is worrisome.

How come so much deforestation happens due to the drug trade? I would think that deforestation would make it easier to pinpoint drug operations hidden in the forest.


Illicit commodity chains are different from legal commodity chains in one important way: the great majority of the profits from illegal commodities (like cocaine) are earned not in the sites of production or retail, but in transit sites by people who are good at smuggling. So this is why the Mexican cartels are among the richest criminal organizations in the world. They neither produce cocaine or retail cocaine --they mainly ship it and wholesale it.

In Central America, smugglers are adding billions of dollars to the region's economy every year. They have to hide that money, and cattle ranching is a great way to hide money. You can do it anywhere, on almost any landscape. You can even land planes on a cattle ranch.

It's not the only way to hide money, however: industrial agriculture, mining, shrimp farming, logging, and other forms of primary resource production and extraction also work.

Have you been able to find any evidence of eco friendly "trafficking" methods?


Good question:

We didn’t see this strange pattern of deforestation in Panama, and our Panama team members explained that it was most likely because the Panamanian economy is set up to hide money (remember the Panama Papers?). If money can move straight through to formal financial institutions --banks-- then people don’t need to hide their money in ways that transform the environment: cattle ranches, large-scale agriculture, construction, etc.

We also have lots of evidence that drug money is being laundered in tourist resorts and high-rise apartment buildings too. Those would have a smaller ecological footprint.

How are you measuring the rate of deforestation? Are you utilizing UAV's or drones? If so, how would you suggest someone with an interest in UAV's get connected with doing forest area research. If not is this a technology you would find valuable?


We are using data on deforestation generated by Hansen et al 2013 ( which is available for free download This is an annual forest loss dataset using 30 meter Landsat satellite pixels.

Drones and UAVs are an incredible resource! A lot of local agencies are using this to monitor deforestation- see and for how these tools are used. We dont use drones or UAV’s because we are studying the phenomenon at a continental scale- and thus needs to use data available over a large area over a long time period.

Have you by chance worked with Dr. Devine in the Texas State Geography Dept? She is writing a book on this exact subject


We are familiar with her very important work, we collaborate with her, she is on our team.

Do you guys know why the narco-deforestation is taking place mainly in biodiversity hotspots, and official protected areas? I would think that people would pick remote places for these things


David here: Yes! The greatest impacts are in protected areas!!

In protected areas there are multiple, overlapping ways to claim land ownership. And where there are multiple competing claims on land, money will ultimately settle who "owns" the land. In many protected areas, multiple groups have claims to the land: indigenous groups, neighboring forest-dependent communities, the state, colonists, etc. Drug traffickers can exploit this confusion by paying for land. Over the past few decades indigenous communities, who have historically lived in the places that are now protected areas, have had difficulty obtaining formal titles on lands.

Indigenous land insecurity is a major contributor to the problem, and fixing this could be part of the solution.

I'm a student of the natural sciences and I've never heard of cocaine trafficking having this much of an impact on tropical systems. If the consequences are as large as you've predicted, then what preventative and remedial measures have been used in the past to combat this issue? What are your suggested solutions going forward?


Beth here: I am a student too! :) The preventative and remedial measure that have been used have mainly been interdiction- blowing up airstrips and other militarized intervention have mainly had the effects (as mentioned in other comments re: the whack-a-mole effect) of moving cartels around Central America and further into remote areas.

The interdiction efforts had been unable to reduce the supply of cocaine into the US in the long-term --and cocaine has been completely price inelastic….the more cocaine crops are controlled, the more efficient cartels are at producing it. Interesting analysis by the Economist on this issue.

Demilitarizing the response to cocaine across borders- treating it as a trade issue (i.e. the way we would respond to unregistered lumber or toys)- and not as a military issue (i.e. with military force).

Treating cocaine as a demand side problem --as a public health issue, rather than with mass incarceration on the consumer side-- is also an important part of the solution.

The severe inequality and underdevelopment of rural Central America also needs to be addressed. Corruption and illegal markets flourish in communities where there is a lack of social and economic opportunities.

After concluding your research, what emotional responses do you have about the probable long-term outcomes?

PS... Go Beavs!!


David here: I would say our emotional responses are: this is urgent, important, very very interesting! Yes, it could be depressing if we let it be, but we try to focus on solving the problem!!

Go Beavs! :)

How would the impact potentially change if cocaine was legal? Is this an issue with growers moving their crops into the forest to avoid detection or increase production? What if they could shift existing farmland to a more profitable crop?


Beth here: Unfortunately, there is no crop more profitable than cocaine. Per unit volume, cocaine has one of the highest returns on investment in the world. See Narconomics: It can be sold for $300 per kilo in Columbia, and up to 30,000 per kilo in the USA- simply by moving it across several borders! That is over 100 times an increase! No other commodity can compete. So shifting to a more profitable crop is not possible.

HOWEVER if cocaine was legal, I think its price could decrease, so this could have an impact on reduce opportunity cost and then other crops could become competitive.

We study the use of forest to launder cocaine money and move drugs- not how the forests are being used for cultivation and production itself.

I would like to stress however that the deforestation we are studying is in some of the last remaining moist tropical forest in Central America. Its protection is critical, so I would not support turning that forest into some other crop type.

I live in Central America near the pacific coast surrounded by pastureland. What should I look for around here to understand what you are studying? I know there are airstrips and hidden bays and such right around here.


David here: Please don't go looking for anything!! :)

Cocaine has really flooded into the region over the past 10 years, so you don't have to look far to find its influence.

Does your paper include potential solutions for this problem, as well?


Steve here: I think your question is a good one that has come up in a few different ways. We point out that conservation criteria, and the side effects of drug interdiction should be considered in policy making. Our paper is an attempt to quantify the scope of the problem, so that when we do have the opportunity to influence international policy making, we have some numbers ready to quantify the problem.

There is currently new dialog with Mexico and countries in the Northern Triangle related to drug trafficking and other economic issues. We hope that the timing our our paper will help bring conservation issues to light in these up and coming discussions.

Might not be the best question but why are they cutting down trees? To move through the forest? Production of cocaine?


David here: Traffickers need to launder huge amounts of money, and one of the best ways to launder money in Central America is building a gigantic cattle ranch. A teeny, tiny fraction is to build landing strips for landing planes. None of the deforestation is related to coca farms. (Coca is grown in South America.)

Is the illegal nature of the business a driving factor of the habitat loss? Would it be better for the environment to legalize and regulate the cultivation of cocaine?


David here: Yes! Illegal businesses and illegal money don't operate the same as legal enterprises. From a basic scientific perspective, we think this is a really fundamental area of research: identifying, detecting and measuring the impact of "clandestine" money on the environment.

What would you say is the biggest threat to the forests due to the production and distribution of cocaine?


Steve here: We were not working in a production zone, but rather a transit zone where cocaine is being transported to markets in the US. However, I would say the biggest threat is that, in effort to conceal coca fields and obtain productive areas, forest is cleared. These are very small patches of a hectare or two at the maximum. I would say that the aerial spraying in places such as Colombia with glyphosate is also and environmental and human health concern. In the trafficking zone, where large areas of forest are cleared in remote areas, thus ‘narco-deforestation’ opens new areas to further colonization. I see that as one of the greater threats to forest.

Cool research! I'll check out the paper asap.

Are these rates of deforestation stabilized/stabilizing or growing?


I think its hard to say if its stabilizing or growing generally for the region. If you look at our time series graphs, (e.g Fig 8 in our paper), you can see that there is a sort of peak deforestation period around the peak of cocaine moving through the region- around 2005 for Guatemala, around 2009 for Honduras, and so on. As interdiction moves cartels around the region, the peak places of narcodeforestation are moving too. Costa Rica has recently become a place of major concern (since 2015)- but it is too early to tell if forest dynamics are affecting it yet. Our data only runs from 2000-2014.

Have any of you ever tried cocaine?


David here: Coffee is our preferred stimulant! Buckets of coffee do the trick. :)

Have any of you ever tried cocaine?


Steve here: Gosh, good question. I will say that I drink a ton of coffee in the morning, but not sure that counts.

do you find that the forests have begun living a more extravagant lifestyle after they've begin trafficking cocaine? or are they putting their money into savings?


That's the problem: most trees spend their new money on matches, oily rags and gasoline! :)

Hi Beth, I remember you from HS in Indy! What can the average person do, aside from non-participation and not purchasing drugs, to help with the deforestation?


Beth: Hi!!! So great to see you here. If you want to make ecological choices- refraining from support the cocaine market is definitely important. We need to get the huge profits out of the cocaine market. Not buying it is one way to do that.

What is actually more important however is a marco policy and macro economic change. We need to be lobbying and calling our senators and representatives to change their approach to the war on drugs- the current approach militarization and mass incarceration, and focus on the supply side- is what is causing environmental and social desctruction.

As US citizens we also need to stay abreast of these types of policies in Central America. Jeff Sessions is soon releasing his Central America policy. We should be asking for more support for socio-economic development initiatives, and less focus on militarization

Hi! I live in Central America and I have a few questions: 1.Which country do you see spending more resources to combat drug trafficking in Central America, or maybe not drug trafficking specifically but spending on the protection of the environment?

2.Do you think the environmental impact will be reduced in the future if the US legalizes Marijuana?

3.And finally, I see you don't mention Panama or Costa Rica, are those countries less involved in drug trafficking in comparison to the other ones, or maybe have more strict laws?


Steve here: I am not sure I can speak to how expenditures should be distributed across Central America, but I would like to see other avenues of social and economic development be applied in general. A focus on the environment could and should be incorporated into that, particularly to protect forests that provide a number of ecosystem services as well has protecting the sovereignty of indigenous and other rural communities. Increased trafficking often brings negative social and environmental consequences as our paper suggest.

  1. I don’t really know what the impacts of this would be. It’s not something we’ve looked into.

  2. There is substantial drug trafficking in these countries also, but we did not find a strong connection between money laundering and forest loss. Costa Rica and Panama had very low deforestation rates. Panama’s more extensive areas of forest loss were from timber concessions that were established in the 1990s.

How much does local and national government corruption play into allowing these narco intrusions into protected areas? Same question with corrupt local or national courts that allow deforestation for the sake of legal private industry? Will funding projects to fight environmental issues through corrupt local governments have any effect?


Beth here: Local and National corruption is certainly a part of allowing this to occur in protect areas- but there is so much more going on here. Corruption and bribes certainly help government officials look the other way- but sometimes the local official is not give the choice of take the bribe- violence and threats are systematically used by cartels to enforce dominance over certain territories- and local officials do not have the option to not comply (at risk of their own life). One of our large concerns with trafficking routes and the large amount of US dollars and violence it implies- is the erosion of governance and the effects that has on people and the environment. There are some places with “narco mayors” that in essence help cartel operations. It is important to remember too that trafficking occurs in areas where there is a lack of development- in communities (some indigenous) that have been neglected or oppressed by the own governments for many years. Thus, drug money is also being used to pay for educational scholarships, uniforms for soccer teams, and install electricity in remote locations. This is how some narcos gain local support and enter government directly. In other cases we have heard of narcos forming their own community governance boards and making decisions to sell off indigenous communal forest land WITHOUT community consent. I would like to stress in all of this- that as long as there is a highly lucrative illegal market for the cocaine trade- corruption will continue to occur. The profits are so large- especially compared to local rural economies, that in this context, corruption will likely continue to flourish.

FINALLY- will funding local governments help fight environmental issues? YES. what we MOST need is to support local governance efforts- not just official government- but the larger suite of local, national, and international organizations supporting environmental work. The Wildlife Conservation Society is doing really important work in the MesoAmerican Biosphere Reserve. Also important work in Tapir conservation in Nicaragua I would actually encourage donating to local environmental and indigenous organizations in Central America. They often pay for more forest officials and employ local people, and are a really important part of the solution.

How does the carbon debt of cocaine compare to other crops like corn, soybeans, or sugarcane all of which displace a lot of land for energy crop production?


David here: We have also done an assessment of the carbon cost of all of this deforestation ---"cocaine carbon" we're calling it. That's catchy. Almost ready to submit that.

But there is an important implication related to carbon impact: As a major, unrecognized driver of deforestation, cocaine trafficking makes conservation planning, policy and programming very difficult. The reason is that many conservation projects depend on payment for ecosystems services from external donors (the main example is REDD+ which is supposed to pay communities for carbon sequestration: not to burn the forest --to keep the carbon in the trees, instead of the atmosphere).

However "unrecognized drivers" of deforestation make these payment-for-ecosystems services projects too risky. And this means donors won't support them. The basic problem applies to payment for other ecosystem services, and biodiversity as well.

Narco-deforestation highlights the fact that we need alternative conservation models!!

Is deforestation caused by the movement of drugs through the region, or is it caused by cultivation in the region?


We study the role of trafficking/movement. There is little to no cultivation of cocaine to our knowledge in central america!

What do you propose to solve this? I am from Costa Rica and right now we are seeing a crime wave caused by drug trafficking. Our murder rate has shoot up in recent years.

A lot of people here, including myself, think this is an unintended consequence of Costa Rica's environmental protection policy. A program, called Payment for Environmental Services or something like that, allows businesses to get tax credits in exchange for reducing their carbon footprint. However, some businesses just buy some square miles of forest, leave it unused, and they get the tax credit.

I am not denying this policy has been, together with the expansion of our national parks and reserves, very successful in reforesting our country. However, this, together with an un understaffed national park service, has led to thousands of unpatrolled square miles that traffickers are using as a hub to get drugs from Colombia to North America. Every couple weeks we see some makeshift runway being discovered by the police, for example. This status as a hub for drug trafficking has started to spill over to other areas of the country, the southern area of San Jose being a prime example. Hence, the increase in insecurity.

Personally, I think the only way to this is from the demand side of things. Legalize drugs and stop the bloodshed once and for all.

Since this isn't very realistic at the moment, I think the solution should be to promote a non-intensive use of the landscape(tourism, for example). Yes, the current situation is very damaging to the environment but an increase in unused protected land can result in an increase in drug trafficking activities.


Steve here: You raise many important questions. I am not sure how to solve the PES issues you bring up, since that program likely has greater positives than negatives for the greater society, such as retaining forest in key watershed areas. You mention working on the demand side as a partial solution. In the US, we have primarily used incarceration as our approach to curb demand which has not worked. More and more I hear that we should be treating this as a public health issue. I think this is a positive step, and perhaps we should consider first decriminalization of hard drugs and put public funds into programs that reach people who currently would like to get treatment, but cannot afford it. I think those would be positive steps on the demand side. In the transit zone where you live, one thing I would not like to see is increased militarization to confront traffickers. I do not think this would promote a peaceful process to curb trafficking or the negative side effects such as reduced human or environmental security. Costa Rica, and its attraction to tourists is the abundance of both public and private protected areas, so I do not agree that these lands are of “no use”. As I recall, next to Intel, tourism is the second largest contributor to GDP in Costa Rica. So, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” as we sometimes say. It does sadden me that such as peaceful place as Costa Rica has seen this increase in trafficking and crime. I think that increased collaboration among Central and North American countries is greatly needed to confront this issue. After all, it was US interdiction activities in the Caribbean that pushed increased trafficking through Central America.

How much worse is this than normal wildfires/forest fires. I know many forests have fires from lightning strikes during dry hot periods, and that it can be a fairly normal process for most ecosystems. How much worse can these drug camps be? Is it because the length of time they stay, or the chemicals/structures they leave behind?


Steve here: In these wet tropical areas, sometimes fire is used to clear forest, but lightning is not a common factor provoking fires. When forest conversion to pasture is extensive, such as we are seeing in these deforestation ‘hot spots” it can have a lasting effect on the environment. In some locations, forest recovery can take place via secondary succession, but other studies have pointed out that this is increasingly less common for moist tropical forest in Central America. Since this is a cocaine transit zone, chemicals and other production related infrastructure are not necessarily an issue. Maybe near clandestine airstrips there is some contamination but these do not cover large areas.

How effective is enlisting indigenous tribes in combating cocaine trafficking?


Beth Here: I think the most important thing is to strengthen the claims of indigenous people to land- and legalize their tenure to that land. Strong property rights can be a really good way to protect land. Support and protection for these groups and their development is really important. Key areas like the Rio Platano Reserve- need protection urgently- and supporting indigenous groups is important here. In other areas, like the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Peten, Guatemala, forest concessions managed by indigenous people have been found to be more successful or sustainable than concessions given to non-indigenous groups. see Radachowsky et al 2012

We don’t endorse encouraging indigenous tribes to direct confront narcos in a militarized way- and do not want to put the responsibility on those groups to do so.

I know your group is more focused on the environmental impacts of the drug trade, but have you been able to see any changes for better or worse in the quality of life for the locals as the drug trade increases deforestationt/industrialization of the area?



Beth here: Go Sundevils! :) We have done a good amount of field work in Central America and are working on a paper that describes our findings- but briefly- what tends to occur in cocaine trafficking nodes is a boom and bust economy. As the narco dollars pour in, certain rural actors makes a lot of money and these dollars circulate. This has have immediate development effects- some drug kingpins have also investment in baseball/soccer teams, scholarships, and building homes for single moms and the elderly. For some indigenous communities, it is the first time they have had access to electricity for example. Indeed, some indigenous group see the cocaine trade as a right to their own development However….

This development is NOT sustainable. When interdiction occurs, as the kingpin is removed, these “social development programs” disappear. Some communities become dependant on the cocaine economy- and we see a lot of addiction to crime and increases in crime and violence in its wake- and stop investing in other development activities. In addition, if people willingly (or often are coerced) into selling their land to traffickers, they have lost an important asset to farm or use as capital for further development. Deforestation also has major impacts on many indigenous communities who use the forest for their livelihoods- to hunt and use other forest products- and to support cultural activities- see

One of the main issues with DECREASE in quality of life- and what concerns me the most- is violence and how people become displaced from their land. In the field we have noticed extreme increases in violence- and the use of gangs like MS13- to become employed in trafficking activities. This insecurity destabilizes communities and is a major obstacle to sustainable development. I am quite concerned that increased in violence are blamed on gang- but the root of this is a narcocapitalized gang violence that funds and encourages these activities.

In addition, local and national actors bribe local officials and use their political and economic capital (and sometimes violence) to claim strategic pieces of land (where they want to land plans and trafficking drugs). Local and indigenous people have unfortunately lost rights to their land in some cases (we have seen this play out in El Salvador and Honduras specifically).

So how much land are we talking about in acres or square miles? I've been reading through the comments and copy pastes of the article because the website page is down (hug o death?) but I cannot find the actual figures. Can you help me equate these percentages to size?


Steve here: I am going to post some descriptive statistics for you right here.

•Total forest loss for Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua = 4,842,122 ac or an area the size of Massachusetts •Anomalous forest loss (estimated to be trafficking related) for Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua was about 19% of that or 916,558 ac or an area the size of Delaware

Forest loss numbers for patches >=2 ha, potentially related to cocaine trafficking are the following:

Guatemala = 395,476 ac (14% of deforestation) Honduras = 185,642 ac (25% of deforestation) Nicaragua = 335,440 ac (29% of deforestation)

*numbers in the paper are only slightly different since we fit curves to the data, however these numbers using the raw data are very close to fitted values!

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