By Jeremy Radachowsky and Victor Hugo Ramos
Vice President Pence and US cabinet officials met last week in Miami with the presidents of Northern Central America in a high-level “Conference on Prosperity and Security” focused on improving economic development, rule of law, and security in Central America.
For the Trump administration, the primary interest is to reduce drug trafficking and curb illegal immigration to the United States. As Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly puts it, “The securing of our Southwest border, in my view, begins 1,500 miles south. If we can improve the conditions—the lot of life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans—we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.”
This philosophy builds upon the Obama administration’s “Plan for Prosperity,” as well as a new strategy from the Atlantic Council’s Northern Triangle Security and Economic Opportunity Task Force. The strategy calls not only for US investment, but for co-responsibility between US and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The strategy largely focuses on urban areas – fomenting business and reducing crime, gang activity, and corruption.
Not taken into account, however, is the key role of Central America’s vast cross-border forests in ensuring regional security and prosperity. Here is why that’s a problem.
Central America’s largest remaining forests all fall along international borders. When the countries first gained independence in the early 19th century, their major cities were located near their centers. As they developed, the population centers were further urbanized, while rural lowland forest areas received less national government investment, preserving sparsely populated border forests.
During the conservation movement in the late 20th century, many of these cross-border forests were set aside as national protected areas and indigenous territories. For example, the 7,700-square mile Maya Biosphere Reserve – about the size of New Jersey – spans 46 percent of Guatemala’s border with Mexico. The 8,700-square mile Moskitia Forest covers about half of the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
These forests are of critical importance for the conservation of species such as the jaguar, tapir, howler monkey, and scarlet macaw. They are also home to hundreds of thousands of indigenous, afro-descendant, and mestizo people – many with livelihoods and cultures deeply entwined with the environment.
The forests provide water, food, and other ecosystem services to broader populations and are crucial to national economies that rely on ecotourism, timber, and other forest products. For example, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve draws 300,000 tourists per year and produces tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the country.
However, given the position of these forests along international borders, they have become key corridors for trafficking drugs, people, arms, wildlife, timber, and other illicit goods northward. According to the US State Department, eighty percent of all cocaine trafficking runs through Central America. Like water running downhill, trafficking routes follow the path of least resistance and least governmental control – its sparsely populated forests. And both forests and rural forest inhabitants are suffering.
A recent study showed that up to 30 percent of deforestation in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the past 10 years has been related to cocaine trafficking, as forests are cleared to launder drug money through cattle ranching front “businesses.” Even more worrying, between 30 and 60 percent of this forest loss occurred in the region’s protected areas.
Local people often get stuck in the middle, forced to choose between living in dangerous conditions and working for organized criminal syndicates or abandoning their homes and migrating – many to the United States. For those who choose to defend their forest territories and eke out legal livelihoods, the dangers are high. Central America – and especially Honduras – boasts the highest murder rate of environmental defenders in the world, according to Global Witness.
Two things are clear: First, Central American border security requires forest security. Second, without protection of its forests and forest inhabitants, Central America will not prosper.
By actively engaging forest dwellers as stewards of well-governed forests, collectively we can improve forest governance while empowering local people and removing one of the factors driving migration northward.
US policy going forward should take measures to protect forest inhabitants and improve security in border forests – both because it’s the right thing to do and because degradation of the environment is contributing to a downward spiral of weak governance, lack of natural capital, and lack of opportunity that will only lead to deeper societal inequity and more migration.
Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Regional Director for Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Victor Hugo Ramos is Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with the WCS Guatemala program in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.