Uncovering the Roots of Environmental Problems
Dr. Jennifer Devine, a political geographer in the Texas State Department of Geography, began her career studying community forestry, a management perspective that puts the rights and responsibilities of forest management into the hands of local residents. “I wanted to be a part of the project of solving global poverty,” explains Devine. “I discovered community forestry and analyzed its conservation and social impacts and realized that this is the best management practice for both the forests and the local communities.” This mission eventually led her to work in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, a rich ecological treasure that has become both a stirring success story and ground zero for the serious challenges facing those engaged in the work of conservation.
The forests, wetlands, and savannahs of the Maya Biosphere Reserve dropped from 80.1% of the area to 67.6% between 2000 and 2017.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve has one of the world’s largest communally managed forests, but the forest managers are constantly fighting illegal deforestation driven by drug trafficking activity. “The community foresters told me that the number one threat to their social movement, and to this forest, are drug trafficking cattle ranchers,” says Devine. Drug trafficking organizations move in clandestinely and cut down the forest, replacing it with cattle pasture. Possession of this illegal land provides them with distinct advantages for laundering money. Cattle first purchased in cash without a receipt in Central America are then sold in Mexico, with a receipt, thus laundering the original illegal funds. Additionally, narcos have built roads and airstrips through the reserve allowing for stealthy transport of drugs into and out of the country. They also enable other illegal activities, such as timber poaching, human trafficking and transporting stolen ancient artifacts. The narcos threaten the local communities using a strategy called “el pago o el plomo” — the bribe or the bullet.
“The narcos will move in to the community-managed forest and tell a leader of the cooperative, ‘Sell me that land over there.’ And the leader will say, ‘I can’t sell you my land, I don’t own it. We have a concession from the state, if I sell this land we would get kicked off.’ And he’ll say, ‘OK. I’ll come back later and offer your widow half the amount that I’ve offered you today.’”
In Guatemala, communally managed lands in protected areas have been more resilient to narco land grabs. By contrast, many national parks managed by the state have suffered rapid deforestation across the Maya Biosphere Reserve, more than half of which can be attributed to narco activity in some areas. In Central America this has led to an understanding among researchers and conservation leaders that drug policy and conservation policy are one and the same. According to Devine, “We really need to start thinking of environmental policy as drug policy. We’ve spent $3 trillion in the last 40 years fighting a highly militarized war on drugs. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost; the forests are being burnt; democracies have been corrupted. Drugs are cheaper and purer and are being used at a higher rate today than they were in the 1970s when Nixon declared the war on drugs. It is such a catastrophic failure.” She suggests that more effective policy will come from strengthening communities on the front line, as well as democratic institutions and local traditional organizations. In the U.S., investing in drug treatment and addiction counseling in order to reduce demand for drugs would be a path to truly defeating the cartels and saving the forests.
Devine’s work is building a body of literature and data that identifies the losses to the ecosystem due to narco-deforestation and supports community forestry as a solution. Despite many challenges, Devine is hopeful that her work can shine a light on one of the most devastating ecological and social injustices in the Americas today, and she believes Texas State can be a leader in that effort: “Our department is uniquely situated to do this kind of work because of our specializations in environmental and political geography as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing. This mixed-methods approach allows us to make sense of this complex political and ecological landscape.”