Drugs, land grabs and coronavirus imperil rainforests

A perfect storm is wreaking havoc on Central America’s last rainforests, which are vital for absorbing CO2

By Michael Molinski

(Michael Molinski is a senior economist at Trendline Economics. He’s worked for Fidelity, Charles Schwab and Wells Fargo, and previously as a foreign correspondent and editor for Bloomberg News and MarketWatch.) 

WASPAM, Nicaragua (Callaway Climate Insights) — The rapid deforestation of the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua and Honduras, combined with the sharp escalation of coronavirus cases, has brought a double blow to the rainforests and peoples who inhabit them.

It’s affecting not only the temperatures and air that we breathe globally, but it also has an effect on the beef that the United States imports from Nicaragua.

For the past decade, drug traffickers, most notably from Colombia, have used the Miskito Coast as a refuge for hiding their loot. They can fly in and out unnoticed from hidden airports in the jungle, often with help from villagers, mestizos or sometimes by bribing police or military officers who are willing to turn a blind eye.

To do that, these drug traffickers need to clear forests — some from protected lands — by burning trees or clear-cutting to make room for airstrips. And to do that, they have been helped by others who are also interested in illegally clearing the rainforests to make way for cattle ranches, who in turn prepare beef for exports.

The result has been a devastation of the rainforests in both Nicaragua and Honduras, which are critical in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and combating climate change and global warming.

Nicaragua’s rainforests were already damaged by two back-to-back wars in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1969, 76% of Nicaragua was covered by forests. Now, its forest cover is less than 25%, according to Global Forest Watch. Its indigenous regions have been badly hit, with deforestation rates as high as 27% since 2000. Much of the deforestation has been illegally cut from areas like the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, a rainforest preserve on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras which has been on the UNESCO list since 1997 and is the second largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, next to the Amazon.

“Not only have we had problems from illegal settlers and drug traffickers who are cutting down our forests, Covid-19 has had a drastic effect on the rainforests and the Miskito people,” said Brooklyn Rivera, the indigenous leader of the Miskito peoples who himself contracted the coronavirus in May.

“People don’t know how to care for their health, and because of our culture, they are afraid to go to hospitals, preferring to be treated by natural remedies such as herbs and leaves,” Rivera said.

In an ironic twist, the coronavirus pandemic has actually made it easier for drug traffickers to operate out of the Miskito Coast. Here’s how it works:

Two mestizo men (mixed Hispanic and indigenous blood) who have been pre-selected by the drug traffickers, wait on the outskirts of a soccer field on the edge of a remote village in the jungle for a plane to arrive from Colombia carrying drugs. The landing strip has already been cleared, generally by indigenous people from the village who have each been paid a couple dollars or a meal for their trouble. Sometimes they string together three soccer fields in a row, to give the small planes more room to land and to hide the planes from U.S. DEA agents and Nicaraguan police and navy. Having three soccer fields together can be more politically correct, and no one would suspect it as being used as an airstrip. When the planes fly in, they would only have to remove the goalposts. 

These days, though, it has become a lot easier because no one is patrolling the jungles due to the coronavirus. The planes either refuel, or planes are switched out, sometimes carrying money or drugs, and then they’re on their way either to Los Angeles or Miami or anywhere in between.

“Without a doubt, drug trafficking has increased during the pandemic, principally because of economic reasons,” said Laura Bloom, a researcher at the University of Nevada at Reno, who just finished a 200-page dissertation of the infiltration of the narcotics trade in the Miskito Coast. “Practically no one in the Miskito Coast is going to turn down anyone who is offering money to harbor drugs or money.”

The two regions of Nicaragua that make up the Miskito Coast are easily the poorest regions of Nicaragua, and Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti.

“Politics and institutions incentivize drug traffickers to use different strategies in different locations,” wrote Bloom in her report, Thinking Like a Kingpin: An Ethnology of Narco-Violence in Central America, Boston University, 2020. “And there is no better place than the Miskito Coast,” she said.

A Nicaraguan law says it’s illegal for land on the Miskito Coast to be sold to anyone other than the indigenous peoples of the Miskito, Rama, Sumo, Garifuna or Mayangna. Still, those laws are ignored by people seeking to expand their cattle ranches, sell old forests for profit, or to build landing strips. Many of them claim to have purchased the land. Over the past five years, 40 indigenous people have been killed in cases related to land invasions, according to the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

The cattle that graze on these settled lands may make their way to the dinner plates of Americans, Europeans or increasingly to Asians. Nicaraguan beef is generally sold to mid-sized import-export companies.

However, at least two major companies, Nestle (NSRGY) and privately-held Cargill, said they both process beef from Nicaragua, although they said they can only trace it to the slaughterhouses, not to the region.

“We do source from Nicaragua, albeit a negligible fraction of less than 0.5% (in 2018 and 2019) of what we need for Nestlé’s food portfolio in the U.S.,” a Nestle spokeswoman in Switzerland told Callaway Climate Insights. “It is traceable to processing facilities in that country. We are engaged with our supplier to ensure that it is not linked to deforestation or land and human rights violations.”

The indigenous people of Nicaragua, however, are more concerned with their health and deepening poverty.

“We have received very little help from the Nicaraguan government, or for that matter from foreign governments,” Rivera said. “We are a poor people, but we are very rich in terms of our resources. We have a lot to offer, if only someone would recognize it.”

Above, legal ranching in Nicaragua. Photo: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)/Neil Palmer.