The War on Drugs Is a War on the Climate

The cloud forest at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.
The cloud forest at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.
Photo: AP

The U.S. War on Drugs has a troubled history riddled with racism, propaganda, and failure as the country remains one of the top markets for illegal drugs. The U.S. crackdown on drugs is, unfortunately, also driving deforestation throughout Central America according to new research.


As cocaine traffickers try to avoid detection, they venture further into remote rainforests to hide, often cutting down key protected areas along the way. In fact, they often launder their drug money by posing as loggers and ranchers who are still illegally cutting down precious rainforest. The natural and cultural resources lost a year in the region amounts to some $214.6 million, according to the new research.

A team of researchers from Texas, Oregon, Costa Rica, and El Salvador presented their findings Tuesday in three separate papers at the pre-COP, an event the Costa Rican government hosted as part of the build-up for the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in Chile in December. They monitored criminal activity in protected areas in Petén, Guatemala; northeastern Honduras; and Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula by taking trips to the region in 2015 and 2016, followed by fieldwork in the three areas in 2018. The scientists conducted a total of 45 interviews with Costa Rican protected area administrators and other stakeholders from the public and private sectors from Guatemala and Honduras.

These drug-trafficking practices have been ongoing since the early 2000s, but with the climate crisis reaching a fever pitch, researchers are focusing more attention on the growing invasion of narcos in Central American rainforests. Per the new research, this environmental devastation doesn’t just look like fallen trees; it includes destroyed mangroves, drained wetlands, and poached flora and fauna.

The research presented on Tuesday also points to the value of letting local communities manage their forests. It turns out they do a damn good job. Costa Rica, which has higher rates of community forest management, narcotics-related activity is not as pronounced as it is in Guatemala and Honduras. The findings also show that letting communities manage their forests could help address climate change. The findings show that carbon stored in community forests in southern Mexico and Central America is enough to help the region meet its Paris Agreement goals.

That’s only if governments give them the power and resources, however, to properly manage these lands. That’s the main takeaway from all this research, author Jennifer Devine, an assistant professor of geography at Texas State University, told Earther in an email.


“Communal and indigenous land rights are the most effective strategy to combat the negative impacts of drug trafficking and climate change simultaneously,” she wrote. “The War on Drugs approach to fighting drug traffickers has to end. Rather than engaging in military-based approaches, governments and donors should invest in community and indigenous land rights and governance systems to curtail the power and proliferation of [drug trafficking organizations], mitigate climate change by slowing narco deforestation, and to recognize the rights of Indigenous and peasant communities.”

Otherwise, dangerous and violent drug-dealing organizations often enter the remote rainforests where there is little to no human activity or settlements and essentially claim them. Once that happens, it makes protecting those lands close to impossible with park rangers facing death if they retaliate against the narcos. Clashes like this have been unfolding in the Brazilian Amazon as criminal gangs look to convert the forest to cattle pastures and farms.


Those are just some of the unintended consequences of this issue. The world is losing valuable, sometimes centuries-old forests, but people are also dying as a result of this infiltration. And those who survive do so by escaping to foreign lands where they’re treated as the other.

“Drug trafficking and its environmental and social impacts are contributing to the refugee crisis at the U.S.-Southern border that is mistakenly referred to as a ‘migration’ crisis,” Devine said.


World leaders need to step up to both protect these rainforests and the communities under siege by narcos. That’s one way to stop climate change and help the communities that live there.

Correction October 9, 2019: This story previously misspelled the name of one of the regions studied. It is Petén, Guatemala, not Pelen. 


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


The ultimate fact is that the war on drugs is useless. It does very little to actually stop the flood of cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the US, it just makes them more expensive and more likely to be mixed with cheaper and even more deadly chemicals. The realistic solution is legalization and regulation, almost certainly with frequently deadly drugs or drugs that make it likely for someone to become violent, like heroin or meth, being required to be used on the premises with proper medical personnel and guards; essentially legalized opium dens. People have been getting high in many ways since the earliest eras of human civilization and perhaps even before, any idea that we can put a stop to drug use without mentally or physically altering people is wishful thinking.