Honduras: Narcotics Trade Accelerating Deforestation

By Luis Noé-Bustamente*

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras)

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. / UNESCO / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The rapid increase in deforestation in Honduras is being driven to a significant degree by the narcotics trade’s use of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder drug profits.  Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Research indicates that the burgeoning drug trade connects businesses involved in illegal logging, timber sales, and the use of the cleared land for cattle ranching as a mechanism to launder drug trafficking money.  Criminal organizations insert illegal timber into the existing legal supply-chain, hiding illicit profits within legal revenue streams.

  • Drug traffickers’ access to capital gives them immense social, economic, and political influence in remote areas. Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that they are able to conduct unusually large, remote, and fast forest-clearing in areas where they also collaborate with illegal loggers to grab land, enabling them to later merge both activities through cattle ranching operations.  Last year, a spatio-temporal study led by Dr. Steven Sesnie, an ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that as much as 25 percent of the annual forest loss in Honduras during the past decade can be linked to the drug trade.

Even though these emerging regional bosses are growing in influence and audacity, the Honduran government does not acknowledge the scope of their illicit activities – even in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), the country’s largest natural forest reserve (approximately 800,000 hectares).  In 1997, the Honduran Congress designated three different zones in the RPBR to provide some long-term protection of its sparsely inhabited core zone and to promote sustainable development in its more populated buffer and cultural zones.  Available information indicates, however, that enforcement has been very spotty, with only very rare action against only low-level violators.

  • Parts of the RPBR have experienced what forestry experts call alarming levels of cleared forest patches – even in areas with limited or no road access, where only illicit traders go. The RPBR’s secluded “cultural zone” is experiencing forest clearing at an estimated rate of more than 100 hectares per year (50 times more than in 2005).  Sensie’s report directly correlates this with increased drug trafficking throughout the country.  Indeed, there is a positive and substantial correlation between the country’s recorded percentage of GDP from drug trafficking (based on the same study) and the amount of irregular forest loss.

Under current conditions, Honduras has limited ability to address the institutional, socioeconomic, and criminal factors that exacerbate deforestation.  Unemployment, corruption, weak law enforcement, and violence create an environment that facilitates the illegal triad attacking Honduran forests – the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and land grabs.  The country has shown little political will to use what few legal tools it has to keep illegal groups from bribing and, failing to buy them, intimidating the law enforcement and government officials who give them harvesting or transport permits.  High unemployment and poverty in rural Honduras also create a strong incentive for local residents to cooperate with criminal organizations to obtain income and protection for their families – and severely dissuading them from with what few investigations might be undertaken in their areas.

  •  The increasingly obvious link with the narcotics trade, however, offers a way to squeeze illicit logging and livestock operations. Earlier this year, two months after U.S. prosecutors indicted Honduran Congressman Fredy Najera Montoya for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, Honduran courts finally – after years of allegations against Najera for “operational irregularities” – accused him of environmental crimes related to his illegal use of wood products and forging official documents.  Such actions, as well as a recent agreement to work with USAID to better enforce environmental laws, are good signs, but meaningful progress addressing deforestation must take into account the underlying causes: the country’s weak rule of law, lack of economic opportunity for most of its population, and the near-total lack of institutional presence in much of rural Honduras.

July 17, 2018

* Luis Noé-Bustamente is a CLALS research assistant.  He is on a team dedicated to a new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

Peru: Wildlife Trafficking Poses Complex Challenges

By Ana Marrugo*

A large parrot shows its multi-colored wings

A red and green macaw takes flight in Manú National Park, Peru. / Bill Bouton / Wikimedia Commons

Peru – the fifth most “megadiverse” country in the world – is losing precious wildlife because of weak trafficking laws and even weaker enforcement of them.  Home to 10 percent of existing species of flora, Peru ranks between second and fifth worldwide in the number of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles within its borders.  The illegal trafficking of wildlife, however, is threatening Peru’s biodiversity.  It now places second in the hemisphere in volume of trafficked wildlife, trailing only Mexico.

  • Growing threats are pushing species into endangered status at a rapid rate. In 2004-14, according to Peruvian government estimates, the percentage of endangered species increased rapidly: from 14.1 to 24.5 percent of mammals; 9.2 to 35.2 percent of amphibians; and up by 50 percent of reptiles.
  • Trafficking is one source of pressure on dwindling wildlife populations. The most-trafficked species in Peru are birds, especially the white-winged parakeet and the red and green macaw, and some small primates sold as pets or to illegal zoos.  Bigger animals, such as the Andean bear, vicuñas, monkeys, and various cats, are sold for their meat.  Animal parts and reptiles and amphibians are sold for medicinal or reputedly magic uses, and reptile skins for the fashion and leather industries.  Cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, and infrastructure construction also put major pressures on animal life.
  • Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) estimates that three quarters of the country’s most frequently trafficked species are for domestic rather than international markets. Indigenous people and peasants in the Amazon region – seeking profits far above those that can be generated from agriculture – capture animals and sell them to middlemen who then sell them to retailers in local markets or to international collectors.

Investigations of traffickers are rare, and prosecutions almost nonexistent.  The director of Neotropical Primate Conservation told reporters that “few” of the 150 cases she reported to SERFOR, prosecutors, and regional authorities – including a trafficker caught carrying thousands of parakeets – have been investigated, and “almost all cases” are retired without ever reaching a judge.  The first conviction (and one of the few known), finalized in 2016, resulted when police caught two brothers red-handed driving a car carrying an ocelot to a local market.  Offenders are usually released after paying a minor fine.

  • Getting good information is a challenge. Most estimates come from seizures of exported animals, leaving unaccounted the large portion of illegal wildlife sold in local markets, and most research focuses only on particular species.  The flow to local markets of Titicaca frog juice (thought to have extraordinary health benefits), monkey meat (for traditional cuisine), and Andean bear parts (thought to have magical properties) has been impossible to track.  Internationally, owl monkeys are sent clandestinely to Colombia for malaria research, and Chinese markets sell dried seahorse powder and an array of other substances for medicine – without leaving a trace in Peru.
  • Corruption is a perennial problem. Low-paid officers take bribes to provide protection and forged documentation permitting the transport of illegally sourced animals.  Forestry and Wildlife Law 29763 delegates virtually all responsibility for environmental crimes to local governments with poor resources and serious conflicts of interest, including officials’ collusion in the trade and local inhabitants’ dependence on it for income.

International attention in wildlife trafficking has been limited.  Unlike the illegal timber trade, this trade does not involve hundreds of millions of dollars, nor does it harm the commercial interests of the nation or its trading partners.  Major industries have not been linked to this criminal enterprise as they have in the trafficking of narcotics and timber.  Thus, international support to tackle the demand side of the market appears likely to remain feeble.  At the local level authorities rely on educational programs to teach people about the environmental impacts of wildlife trafficking, ecosystem protection and the importance of denouncing environmental crimes.  Nevertheless, wildlife trade continues to be an important source of income for impoverished communities, as well as for traffickers who frequently count on ties to corrupt officials to ensure that they can evade prosecution.

  • The impact of wildlife trafficking is not as immediately obvious as logging, and it is therefore harder to marshal political pressure for comprehensive solutions. SERFOR is expanding port controls, but piecemeal efforts have had little impact.  Since most of the trafficked animals remain in Peru and neighboring countries, efforts to discourage local demand and increase cross border cooperation would seem to offer hope – if governments get serious about addressing the problem.

June 29, 2018

* Ana Marrugo is pursuing an M.A. in Public Anthropology at American University.  She is on the team dedicated to new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.