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Your forest on drugs: America's cocaine habit destroys national parks

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If you use cocaine and need a reason to quit—or one to avoid starting in the first place—think conservation. The national parks of Guatemala and other countries have become the preferred haven of drug traffickers who usurp protected areas and burn the forest to serve their own purposes and the demands of their customers, according to Roan McNab, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) country director for Guatemala. "They systematically destroy and sabotage forests so they can put in landing fields," McNab said at the WCS State of the Wild conference on April 15. The landing fields enable them to move drugs—particularly cocaine—north by plane to feed American habits. Similar misuse of parklands has plagued Colombia since at least the 1990s, and the Sierra de la Macarena National Park there is home to some 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres) of coca plantations, according to field data compiled by the illegal-drug monitoring U.N. body the Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilicitos. As a result, officials have targeted the park for herbicide spraying from airplanes. Of course, this indiscriminately kills both coca and forest vegetation as well as poses a risk to the area's frogs and other amphibians. In Guatemala, drug traffickers clear a new landing strip on average once every six months to avoid being caught. And, over the last 15 years, trafficking has eliminated half the nesting trees of the scarlet macaw. At El Mirador, the jungle-covered remains of a once flourishing Mayan city, its pending listing as a new national park will likely invite narco-traffickers to take over the home of those same scarlet macaws as well as white-lipped peccaries, jaguars and other animals. In addition to destroying wildlife, eliminating tourism and otherwise terrorizing the locals, drug traffickers also make it impossible for park employees to focus on fighting poaching and other conservation crimes. "Neither archaeologists nor conservationists can go there," McNab noted. "It's difficult for the government to go there unless escorted by a lot of military and police." As a result, archaeologists, biologists and others have banded together to conduct monitoring flights of these areas with the services of LightHawk, volunteer pilots from the U.S. who help in environmental efforts. But the prognosis is not good, given the success of such "narco-ranchers" in other parts of Central and South America. "It is time for consumers in the U.S. to own up to the results and impacts of their activities," McNab says. "This is my forest on drugs." -- Edited by dbiello at 04/21/2008 8:36 AM

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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