Environmental degradation linked to drug trafficking is causing losses of about $215 million annually across the region's protected forest areas.
Drug trafficking and organised crime are fuelling deforestation in protected tropical forests and national parks across Central America, causing substantial economic losses, researchers said on Tuesday.
Traffickers are cutting down trees to build roads and airstrips to transport cocaine and are encroaching ever further into more remote forest areas to evade anti-narcotics operations, according to two separate studies on the problem.
"Narco-deforestation now affects large tropical forests in Guatemala, Honduras (and) Nicaragua, and is beginning to affect Costa Rica as well," Jennifer A. Devine, assistant geography professor at Texas State University and co-author of the studies, said in a statement.
Protected mangrove and wetland areas in coastal parts of Honduras and Costa Rica are "attractive for supplying maritime routes and warehousing cocaine", researchers wrote.
Environmental degradation caused by drug trafficking leads to losses of about $215 million annually in natural and cultural resources across Central America's protected forest areas, showed estimates by report co-author Bernardo Aguilar-Gonzalez.
"That is more than double the conservation budget the region's governments allocate to the forest areas," noted Aguilar-Gonzalez, who heads Fundacion Neotropica, a Costa Rican nonprofit that promotes community management of natural resources.
Ensuring forest communities have secure land tenure, including collective land titles, and allowing them to decide how their land should be managed could help deter trafficking and slow deforestation, researchers said.
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Areas that are managed by communities record "very low forest losses", they added.
"Investing in community land rights and participatory governance in protected areas is a key strategy to combat drug trafficking and climate change simultaneously," Aguilar-Gonzalez said in a statement.
Forest protection has come under the spotlight as a low-cost way to keep climate change in check because trees store planet-warming carbon. They release it when they are burned or rot.
Deforestation rates have risen in the world's tropical regions, while Latin American countries have also been struggling to curb forest fires in the Amazon this year.
The forest research was presented at a meeting in Costa Rica this week to examine progress on the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change, including commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of December's U.N. climate talks in Chile.