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Clandestine and illicit economies as drivers of land system dynamics

April 24, 7:30 pm CET

BERN, Switzerland – Two studies of the illegal economy in Central America and West Africa have suggested a high correlation between the law-breaking and environmental damage wrought by changed land use.

In one study, cocaine production in Guatemala and Honduras was found to have caused more deforestation than “normal” human expansion; in the other, illegal gold mining in Ghana was shown to be responsible for a huge increase in land degradation and a rise in malaria.

Both studies were presented to the Global Land Programme’s (GLP) 4th Open Science Meeting in Bern.

The cocaine study found hot spots in Guatemala and Honduras where up to 30 percent of deforestation (depending on how it is calculated) could be due to the production of the drug, much of which is smuggled into the United States.

Researcher Beth Tellman of Arizona State University said land was being cleared for a number of reasons, notably to develop agribusiness such as palm oil production that allows the cocaine profits to be laundered.

Land is also cleared to demarcate territory between rival producers, she said, while interdiction from government such as the United States may be driving producers into uncut forest areas.

Gathering data on such activity is difficult (and sometimes dangerous). But Tellman told a GLP session the deforestation could be tracked via satellite imagery and cross-referenced with known patterns, including areas where authorities have seized quantities of the drug.

Deforestation from cocaine production is rapid, she said, while that done as a result of local activities is slower.

Satellite imagery was also used by Heidi Hausermann of Colorado State University to show a huge impact in land denudation from illegal gold mining in southwestern Ghana, including the rerouting of a river.

She and her research colleagues estimate the area covered by mines — which strip or dig up land and are generally left after being exhausted  — rose by 2,300 percent between 2008 and 2013.

The economic culprit was the global financial crash, which sent gold prices – a traditional safe haven investment – soaring. But there has also been a major change in players.

Where the law allows some mining by Ghanaian smallholders, most of the mining is now conducted by Chinese workers for foreign operators. Licences are claimed after prospecting and using a “frontman”.

Illegal mining is rife along the Ofin River although it is supposed to be banned within 300 metres of the river bank. Instead, riverbank mining in one area rose nearly 7,900 percent between 2005 and 2013.

One impact has been a huge rise in reported cases of malaria, particularly among women and children in the region.

Check back often over the next few days for our ongoing coverage of the Global Land Programme’s 2019 Open Science Meeting. You can view the plenary keynotes on the free online livestream from the event, and follow minute-by-minute coverage on Twitter at @GlobalLandP or use the hashtag #GLPOSM to follow attendees’ posts.