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.
Read the full article in Environmental Research Letters.