Few, if any of us, remain unaware of how industries can inflict catastrophic environmental damage—on renewable and nonrenewable resources from drinking water to the forests that act as carbon sinks, therapists and pharmacies, and on lands and traditional livelihoods. Less amplified is how illicit industries—and the policies that create them—can do just the same.
As a recent United Nations publication about drugs and the environment, part of last year’s UNODC World Drug Report, frankly admits, there has been relatively little research to date on the environmental impacts of illicit drug production, use, trade and prohibition and their interaction with legal (or mostly legal) industry.
The global drug war, a set of policies and practices pursued in the framework of environmentally-voracious capitalism, plays an increasing role in the destruction.
Yet damage to forests, watersheds and other natural environments related to illicit drugs occurs in a variety of ways. For one thing, crackdowns on drug trafficking or production in one area may move illicit plantations into more remote and environmentally sensitive areas (in the same or a neighboring country). This has happened, for example, with cannabis and poppy cultivation in 1970s Mexico; with opium growing and heroin production in 1990s and 2000s Burma (now Myanmar); and with coca crops in 2000s Colombia. That’s one of the few phenomena in this area that has been relatively well-studied.
The global drug war, a set of policies and practices pursued in the framework of environmentally-voracious capitalism, plays a role—an increasing role—in the destruction of long-evolved biodiversity, carbon sequestering and homes for many of the Earth’s people. Academics, journalists and activists have often carefully traced direct and overtly violent land-grabbing that occurs as a result of the drug war—such as when armed counter-insurgency groups have taken over guerilla-controlled land during wartime.
Flying largely under the radar is another sort of land-grab, in which the drug war serves as a convenient excuse to steal land. The process is very much like that described by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s argument in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). Drawing on research in many disciplines, Klein most famously defined the process by which rapacious companies step into a vacuum systematically created by war and natural disaster. Here’s how a very similar process takes place in the context of the drug war.
A Land-Grabs Pattern
Diego André Lugo-Vivas was born and raised in Cauca, a state in the south-west of Colombia. A powerful region in past centuries, Cauca’s influence began to wane from the time Bogotá became the capital in 1830. Since then the remote area, largely forested, has been neglected by federal governments, allowing for weak local governance and little development. And yet there is great natural wealth here, both in the form of gold, and through cultivation of Cauca’s fertile soil for legal crops, to grow cannabis, or to sustain livestock. Cauca also represents the country’s fourth-largest area of illegal coca cultivation.
“I actually come from a town that is full of coke,” Lugo-Vivas told Filter. Cauca serves as a corridor for drugs being transported from the south to the Pacific coast. Illegal or wildcat mining is common. This context has shaped Lugo-Vivas’s interests as an academic—he’s an adjunct professor at Universidad del Valle in Cali and a researcher at Universidad San Tomás in Bogotá—and as an activist.
“The more War on Drugs we have, the less feasible the outcome is,” he said. “Because 60 years later, we have more coca in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and we have way more consumption in Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.”
“I found the same pattern, which is a strong implementation of a military policy, of a military campaign to re-control the frontier in strategic environmental and conservation areas.”
This paradoxical and failing war looks, however, far more successful if you set a different metric for “success.” Lugo-Vivas has used econometric models to analyze patterns in what he terms “land-grabbing” and land-ownership concentration, and how they relate to the various forms of conflict, punctuated by peace negotiations, that have plagued Colombia for decades. He studied what exactly happened during and after peace negotiations between the government and paramilitary and rebel groups—such as the far-right, paramilitary AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) and the Marxist-Leninist guerilla group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which demobilized in 2017)—across different periods from 1998 up to 2019, and its relationship to forced coca eradication and substitution in three different regions.
Colombian police air service in 2010. Photograph by National Police of Colombia via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0
“I found the same pattern,” he said, “which is a strong implementation of a military policy, of a military campaign to re-control the frontier in strategic environmental and conservation areas.” And after this military campaign, the land has new owners, and new purposes.
“They opened the land to investments from Brazilian investors, German investors, Colombian investors, and the largest North American company, Cargill,” Lugo-Vivas said. Cargill, described by one environmental advocacy organization as “the worst company in the world,” first deforested land, then used it to raise cattle for beef, or for monocropping of corn or palm oil. Other investors may also restrict themselves to grazing or agricultural crops, while an increasing number use their land acquisitions for mining gold or coal. Sometimes the land is initially cleared for large-scale agriculture and later becomes a mining concession.
Cauca has become, according to Lugo-Vivas, perhaps Colombia’s most active state in terms of fighting for Indigenous and campesino rights.
“In the last decade, we have an entire repertory of actions to acquire land that go beyond direct intervention [by men with guns from either side of the conflict simply taking the land],” Lugo-Vivas said.
Partly as a result of these other actions that result in the new owners and new purposes Lugo-Vivas mentions, by 2010, about 70 per cent of the formerly forested Cauca Valley had been converted to human use. Very little of the remaining dry semi-tropical forest lowlands, with many endemic species, holds regional or national environmentally protected status, despite being one of six Colombian biomes identified by researchers as hotspots in urgent need of conservation. In the face of the onslaught Cauca has become, according to Lugo-Vivas, perhaps Colombia’s most active state in terms of fighting for Indigenous and campesino (tenant or subsistence farmer) rights.
Managing the Economy
In her book Drug War Capitalism (2015), Mexican-resident Canadian writer Dawn Paley argues that the so-called War on Drugs in Latin America has always been a cover for neoliberal expansion, with legislation, policies and practices ensuring the northwards movement of capital—privatizing, extracting and opening up natural resources, and using militarization and paramilitary activity to do so.
Describing the violence that clears the way for this expansion, Paley prefers the term “paramilitary group” to “drug cartel.” She sees such organizations as tools for the enforcement of social control, including via “permissions” that allow them to operate. She points to the Mexican armed forces as an example of such quiet permission-givers.
“Prohibition is not a hands-off system. Prohibition is an active system of management of the illicit economy.”
“Prohibition is not a hands-off system, where the government’s looking the other way,” she told Filter. “Prohibition is an active system of management of the illicit economy—creation of the illicit economy and its management.”
That’s certainly what we see in Guatemala, where ecological activist Julio González belongs to a collective called Madreselva (“Mother Forest”), devoted to defending the country’s rich natural and cultural resources from destruction, and promoting alternative models in which local people sustainably manage the land. Both rule of law and human rights, and Madre Selva herself, are at stake as powerful resource extraction and energy companies divvy up the land.
“There are rivers that have been completely sacrificed,” González told Filter, describing the impact of one hydroelectric project that drew international attention after a Q’eqchi’ Maya schoolteacher and activist, who had won a later-reversed Constitutional Court decision against it, was sentenced to over seven years on flimsy evidence (he was released in 2022 after serving four).
Environmental justice protest in Guatemala. Photograph by Julio González.
Since 1996, Madreselva has monitored government ministries in charge of biodiversity for compliance, pushed for Indigenous communities’ right to consultation on resource extraction projects, and supported such communities in the courts against powerful companies, as well as in carrying out local and sustainable infrastructure projects to build energy autonomy.
González argues that the long history of the drug war in the region is essential background for understanding the recent increased militarization of Guatemala and the brutal reversal of short-lived attempts to address endemic corruption at the highest levels. It’s this history, he said, that explains just how it is that land and water—stolen from under the peoples who’ve lived on it since before colonization—is now being contaminated by mining tailings or turned over to sugar cane or palm oil monocrops, destroying millions of years of evolution of biological diversity.
The Spoils of War
As González explained, a US-led crackdown on cocaine trafficking from Colombia via the Caribbean in the early 1960s turned the countries of Central America into important conduits for land transit of drugs previously trafficked by air or sea. This process continued through decades of civil war, military-backed government repression including genocide of Mayan people, left-wing insurgencies, a right-wing coup, and the deaths of some 200,000 Guatemalans including 40,000 “disappearances.”
A 1996 peace agreement, signed after three years of UN-brokered negotiations between the Guatemalan government and Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), threatened the state control and wealth enjoyed by military and paramilitary officers and their networks up to that time. But the drug war provided them with a natural opportunity to make new friends.
“In effect, these people … are practically coworkers in the trafficking.”
These connections “gestated from the moment of signing the peace agreement, because by ending the war, [military and paramilitary officers would] lose control of the state to some extent and [therefore] sought allies to continue with the business,” González said. “In effect, from there these people made links with Colombian drug traffickers and from there to here they are practically coworkers in the trafficking.”
“What they want is to control the market, not to impede it. It’s definitely a business that is run at high levels.”
The people at these “high levels” include current and former military officials, police officials, members of the wealthy families who form the oligarchy that rules the country directly and through corruption and influence, and others whose mysteriously acquired wealth and connections fuel entry into political life as representatives or mayors. A variety of reports and evidence support the contention that corruption, fed simultaneously by drug prohibition and drug trafficking, is essentially holding the country hostage.
Given the vast illicit sums made, it became necessary to find ways to launder the profits: finance, real estate and resource extraction. “There needs to be an outlet for all this money,” González said. He described the forced consolidation of some 37 banks that occurred in 2006, resulting in just a handful of surviving banking organizations, run by wealthy Guatemalan families. These banks take a cut from remittances sent to struggling family members by Guatemalans working abroad, while pushing poor Guatemalans to rely on the credit the banks offer. And they finance projects in energy (petroleum and electric) and agrocombustibles (sugar cane and palm oil), entrenching the resource-extraction model.
It’s a model that has destroyed, according to one 2021 study, over 713,244 hectares of forest in Guatemala between 2000 and 2019—in association with a shift towards large landowners, often fuelled, as González suggested, by drug profits and co-optation of those who ought to protect it.
Today, he said, we see a “new world order” of poor countries around the globe subject to similar wholesale sacking of their natural resources, with companies from wealthy industrial nations—China and the United States, for example—competing to block each others’ access to the spoils, their governments quite happy to support corrupt and human rights-trampling regimes like Guatemala’s to do so.
“For the benefit of their own interests, they are playing with gunpowder.”
It’s a process that has occurred on a massive scale all over the world since roughly the 1990s, as private investors rush to gobble up what’s left of unspoiled land on Earth. But while it is accelerating now, González believes that there are limits to what local people will tolerate.
“Where every state is increasingly subject to sacking [of its natural resources] and environmental destruction […proponents of the extractive model] create the conditions for confrontation, not just at the national level but regionally,” he said. “It’s inevitable. They have always underestimated the historical capacity of peoples to rebel in conditions of difficulty. They don’t read history. For the benefit of their own interests, they are playing with gunpowder.”
Madreselva protest. Photograph by Julio González
License to Operate
In the state of Guerrero, Mexico, Los Filos, one of the world’s largest open-pit gold mines, has devastated the area’s biodiversity and transformed its topography. Toxic tailings, including cyanide and arsenic that have contaminated local water, force residents of the nearby town of Carrizalillo to rely on bottled water to drink and bathe. The area is barren. A volcano-like mountain of tailings sending heavy-metal-laden dust through the breeze across the closest communities of the ejido early every morning.
Back in 2007, an 83-day blockade by Carrizalillo ejido community members (an ejido is communally owned land), upon whose land Los Filos sits, halted production at the mine after its owners were found to have illegally purchased collectively owned lands, and until a new land-use agreement was negotiated. At the time, Los Filos was owned by Goldcorp, a Canadian company and the world’s second largest gold-mining company (now largest, following a merger).
All along, the ejido has owned the land,yet the succession of mining companies have, ejido members allege, repeatedly breached their legal agreements.
Following repeated allegations of breaches of the agreements, the ejido shut down production again in 2014. In 2020, members of the ejido set up an encampment to prevent the mine’s then-owner, Equinox Gold, from occupying the territory. Finally in 2022, they formally rescinded the social-cooperation agreement (which Equinox took over from an intermediate owner, Leagold Mining) that had permitted mining on their land.
The small community is plagued with cases of illness, delayed development, birth defects and stillbirths. All along, the ejido has owned the land, yet the succession of mining companies have, ejido members allege, repeatedly breached their legal agreements, disputing title at every turn, going ahead and exploiting areas without permission, and overseeing the wholesale transformation of a formerly species-rich biome into a poisoned ruin dangerous to flora and fauna, including the humans who have lived there for generations.
Trafficking organizations, which reap vast profits from the prohibition of drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, have also moved in. Forced displacement and dozens of murders of community members have been shrugged off by Equinox as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of illicit organizations fighting for control of the area.
In such ways, the legal and illicit industries interact and depend on each other.
But this kind of violence has surged since the mining began—much like it has in nearby Nuevo Balsas, another Guerrero town, where Canadian company Torex found gold in 2012; and elsewhere in Mexico. Violence is often perpetrated by illicit organizations providing services—such as security—to mining companies eager to keep local activists away from their worksites, whether the companies are actually allowed to operate there or not.
Cerrejón open-pit coal mine in Northern Colombia. Photograph by Tanenhaus via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0
A Symbiotic Relationship
In such ways, the legal and illicit industries interact and depend on each other.
In Colombia, Diego Lugo-Vivas sees parallels with post-conflict Myanmar at the end of the 1990s.
There, there were “massive land concessions to Chinese and Southeast Asian companies that were acquiring former opium growing areas to make the transition to legal forest and palm and monocrop legal sectors,” he said.
“In Colombia what we start seeing is massive land titling … and although land is supposedly being cleared of drugs and given over to new industry, in fact following this process, Myanmar hit a peak in opium growing and heroin production, and Colombia reached its highest historical level of coca growing,” Lugo-Vivas said.
“[It’s] just a type of strategy to legalize areas that were full of cocaine before you open it and then capital investment, foreign investment, financial capital comes to Colombia, and we have this massive acquisition of land.”
At the same time, “outside all the areas that were grabbed by industries, outside these areas we see a lot of illegal activities, a lot of illicit income related to opium in Myanmar, and related to coca in Colombia,” Lugo-Vivas said.
As he has demonstrated in his work, military and paramilitary actors around the world have taken advantage of the stabilization of political landscapes following peace negotiations to turn land—acquired with the ostensible goal of clearing areas of drug trafficking—over to private hands instead of back to the people who lived sustainably there for generations. Drug production and trafficking either co-exists and collaborates with the new owners or simply moves elsewhere.
The implementation of these policies relies on the organized illicit activity that drug prohibition fosters, but which has spread to new areas.
Rather than focusing on drugs, it would make more sense to look at which policies result in reduced local and non-extractive control over environmentally significant areas. These would include forced eradication, promotion of environmentally harmful alternative crops, and, especially, re-titling or awarding of concessions to lands.
The implementation of these policies relies on the organized illicit activity that drug prohibition fosters, but which has spread to new areas. It relies on private security with historical ties to both drug trafficking and authoritarian regimes, and on legal if unethical activities that conceal relationships of convenience between corrupt official actors and (other) illicit operators.
In the face of land-grabbing and expansion of corporate and private ownership to new and environmentally precious lands around the world, Indigenous people and small farmers have emerged as the frontline of defense. Yet the drug war further puts these people—and the right to protest in general—at risk.
This article is the first in a three-part series examining intersections of environmental injustice and the drug war. Part 2, published on February 9, is How the Global Drug War Threatens Environmental Defenders. Part 3 published on March 23, is Environmental Ruin, Aided by Drug War: How Can Defenders Fight Back?
Top photograph of deforestation in Brazil by Kate Evans/CIFOR via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0