On June 26, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual report on the illicit drug trade. The headline is that despite millions of people killed, incarcerated and impoverished, and trillions of dollars spent on the global drug war, people are using more illicit drugs than ever.
That drug prohibition is an expensive, inhumane failure shouldn’t be news to anyone. However, this report did offer something new. For the first time, the UNODC accompanied its research with a booklet focusing on the effects of “environmental crime”—meaning, damage inflicted on ecosystems by organised drug trafficking groups—in the Amazon rainforest.
This builds on what is apparently a growing concern at the UNODC. Last year, the agency released its first specific report on “environmental crime,” and we are seeing increasingly high-profile figures speaking out about it.
However, experts are warning that this latest UNODC report, along with much of the discourse around these issues, fundamentally misses the point in very dangerous ways.
“For many people, when they think of drugs and the environment, the picture is of rainforests being cleared to grow coca plants, and illicit labs dumping chemicals into rivers—but it’s actually much more complicated,” Kendra McSweeney told Filter.
A geography professor at Ohio State University, McSweeney is part of the International Coalition for Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Crime, a global network of academics, experts and activists seeking to highlight the links between prohibition, the illicit drug trade and the climate crisis.
“In fact, illicit cocaine production takes up a tiny amount of land, as compared to, say, agriculture or illegal mining,” she explained. “The problem of what we call ‘narco-deforestation’ actually has more to do with how the money from drugs is laundered and re-invested in other forms of crime.”
The extent to which manufacturing drugs is harmful to the environment is almost entirely due to the fact they are illegal.
This isn’t about poor farmers clearing small plots of land to grow coca, in other words, but “narco-capitalists” laundering billions of dollars by building huge cattle ranches, particularly, in drug transit countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“These giant ranches are often situated near border zones and serve a dual function,” McSweeney said. “They are used to traffic product, but are also the perfect way to launder the vast amounts of money generated by trafficking.”
It should be obvious that the extent to which manufacturing drugs is harmful to the environment is almost entirely due to the fact they are illegal.
Farmers move into the rainforest in order to avoid law enforcement; labs dump chemicals because in the absence of regulation, there are no facilities to legally and safely dispose of them. This is entirely a function of the drug war. Legal pharmaceuticals are produced relatively cleanly across the world, and there is no scientific reason that couldn’t be true of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and the rest.
And when we speak about “environmental crime” in general, warn McSweeney and her colleagues, the complex links to global drug policy are routinely ignored.
“Increasingly, the focus is on issues like illegal mining in the Amazon,” she observed. “But what people often don’t understand is that it’s the drug trade which provides the capital for these activities.”
Huge profits—which would not exist, unchecked and at this scale, without the drug war—are financing the surge in illegal industries which is destroying vast swathes of the Amazon.
This warning of damaging illegal diversification is echoed by Daniela Dias of SOS Amazonia, an environmental NGO based in Brazil. Speaking from deep in the Amazon itself, Dias painted a picture of groups like PCC and the Red Command “moving from cities into the Amazon in order to control the drug trade.”
“But once they are here,” she told Filter, “they reinvest in illegal mining and timber, and smuggling wildlife.”
The huge profits from the drug trade, in other words—which would not exist, unchecked and at this scale, without the drug war—are financing the surge in illegal industries which is destroying vast swathes of the Amazon.
It’s a connection that the UNODC, a major supporter of global prohibition, conspicuously fails to draw.
So what can be done, from a drug policy perspective, to preserve the rainforests and other ecosystems which are so essential to mitigating the climate crisis?
Dias is emphatic that the answer is not more of the same. “The last thing we need is more militarization of this region. Sending the army to fight cartels in the Amazon would only drive more violence—and those commanders would soon become corrupt and part of the trade itself.”
This corruption, the entanglement of law enforcement and politicians with the drug trade they ostensibly seek to eradicate, is perhaps the greatest unspoken truth here.
“At COP 26 [in 2021], world leaders made a so-called ‘landmark pledge’ to end deforestation,” Neil Woods, chair of Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK, told Filter. “But what none seemed willing to discuss is how this could ever be enforced when in many of the key regions—from the Amazon to West Africa—governments very literally don’t wield executive control, because these areas are controlled by drug traffickers, who can intimidate or buy off soldiers and politicians at will.”
“It’s difficult to get environmental activists to think about how drug policy critically undermines their work.”
To many, the idea that legalizing drugs has an urgent role to play in fighting the climate crisis may take time to comprehend. It’s time we don’t have. When even the UNODC’s own report admits that decades of militarized prohibition has failed, it as disingenuous as it is dangerous to ignore the resulting destruction of the world’s most crucial, biodiverse habitats.
Meanwhile, even within the environmental movement, experts say, there has been a failure to fully comprehend this threat, sometimes with a reluctance to even talk about it.
“It’s difficult to get environmental activists to think about how drug policy critically undermines their work,” Dias said. “Some activists are literally scared of the cartels and corrupt police—but others don’t want to be associated with ‘druggies,’ and think this could dilute their message.”
As irreversible climate catastrophe becomes an ever more present danger, this head-in-the-sand squeamishness in the environmental movement has become untenable. The connection between saving the rainforest and ending the drug war’s damaging incentives, corruption and cruelty must urgently be made explicit.
Our need to confront both the destruction of our planet and one of its biggest drivers of human rights abuses demands that two movements form a powerful alliance.