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The Best Protectors of the Rainforest Are the People Who Already Live There

The War on Drugs is better fought by the people who stand to lose their homes because of trafficking.

The Embera people of Panama have done well at keeping drug traffickers at bay. Image: Genelle Quarles/Burness Communications

Indigenous forest peoples are much more effective than traditional “War on Drugs”-type enforcement at keeping narcotraffickers out of Central America, according to a new analysis by PRISMA, an organization based in El Salvador that focuses on the protection of rural communities in the region.

Though the region is increasingly being ransacked by drug cartels operating clandestinely, the PRISMA report suggests that deforestation has slowed or stopped entirely in areas where indigenous land-use rights are protected by the government.

These cases demonstrate that the recognition of community rights to forests can set the foundation of strong economic and social benefits to counterbalance pressures from drug trafficking or organized crime in the region’s forested areas,” the report says.

“Drug trafficking activity and deforestation thrive where land and resource rights are unclear or disputed, low levels of organization exist, and poverty is rampant. These conditions prevail in many of the region´s protected areas, which remain protected only on paper, while sparse capacity on the ground have effectively converted them into a ‘no man´s land’ highly vulnerable to the incursion of loggers, cattle ranchers, oil palm plantations along with drug traffickers and organized crime," it continues.

Indigenous people living on protected land in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica have either succeeded in expelling drug traffickers from their home area or preventing them from coming in completely. Though land use issues have occasionally sparked violence among some tribes of indigenous people in South America and outsiders, study lead author Andrew Davis said that, in general, Central America has stronger protection laws and that, for the most part, outright violence has been avoided.

“In a lot of these areas you don’t see much violence because there’s a big difference between a park that has rights and one that doesn’t. Parks that have rights have checkpoints, patrols, and well-organized communities—think of it like a giant neighborhood watch,” he said. “It’s not unlike crossing a border. In contrast, in national parks that are protected in name only, you can go in and leave and do what you want.”

When forest rights are protected, communities have legal recourses against outsiders who try to intrude.

Those areas—places that are “protected” but are patrolled by hired guards, military, or law enforcement instead of community leaders—are seeing the most deforestation, illegal logging, and drug smuggling. Often, just one or two guards will be in charge of covering thousands of hectares of land and won't have good backup, Davis says.

What's happening, essentially, is drug traffickers are taking the path of least resistance. They could become engaged in an all-out war with indigenous people who are keen to hold onto their land and have government backing, or they could relocate to an area where there is little oversight from anyone. They nearly always choose the latter. 

Davis says that, when forest rights are protected, communities have legal recourses against outsiders who try to intrude. In Nicaragua, for instance, the Mayangna people have been able to call in the country’s “Green Battalion,” a government group designated to protect forest areas, to help expel drug traffickers. Without the Mayangna’s help, that group would have had little way of knowing anything was going on there.

Though indigenous land rights are better protected in Central America than they are in many parts of the world, Davis says the situation could be better. In Honduras, it took more than a decade for the Garifuna people to peacefully recoup their land, and in many places, indigenous people are living without and sort of special recourse to keep outsiders off their land. That can lead to situations that are lawless at best, and overtly violent at worst. The forest's best protectors, he says, are the people who are already there.

"These community forests contrast very strongly with protected areas that don’t have recognized rights," he said. "Where local people do not have rights and they’re guarded by forest rangers that, in the vast majority of cases, are underfunded. Where community rights have been recognized, they've organized themselves and built strong and vibrant communities and don't want this near them."