SAN JOSE, Costa Rica– Over the centuries the exotic rainforests of Central America, known as some of the most biodiverse places in the world, have attracted a plethora of profit-seeking traders, loggers and cattle-ranchers. To this day, the region continues to provide natural resources for thriving international markets, both legal and illicit.
In recent years the members of Embera-Wounaan, an indigenous tribe in Panama, have been asked to transport ‘bags of rice’ across the jungle overnight in exchange for $200 in cash. Perhaps more suspicious is the fact that there are no rice plantations in all 430,000 hectares of land controlled by the Embera-Wounaan people. A better explanation for these questionable requests is the thriving drug route that infringes upon the tribe’s land. Unfortunately, the Embera-Wounaan community is not the only indigenous tribe to encounter cartels. Drug trafficking pervades most Central American countries, including Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, all the way up through Mexico.
Over the past five years, forest tribes throughout the region have experienced increased cartel aggression and pressure on their lands. Confrontation between cartels and indigenous communities has resulted in violent conflict involving organized crime and destruction of woodlands. Even more devastating is that tribal resistance to drug trafficking has often led to the use of weapons and, in worst cases, in murder.
The courageous and organized opposition of many tribal communities has gained widespread recognition while experts, policy makers and community leaders from all over Central America met in Costa Rica for a conference last week. The conference celebrated the tribes’ achievements, and opened discussion for future solutions to drug trafficking. One of the most successful tactics of the indigenous peoples is their constant vigilance and their commitment to the land. Candido Menzua, a chieftain of the Embera-Wounaan people, describes his tribe’s responsibility to watch over the jungles of Panama, which speaks to a commonly held indigenous belief in stewardship.
Drug trafficking typically occurs in remote regions of Central America that are far from any central political power and are vulnerable to infiltration. The government has little to no presence in such areas, giving cartels the ability to “act with impunity,” says Kendra McSweeney, ecologist and co-author of “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation.” The report is featured in the Science journal.
Located in the swampy Darien region at the border of Colombia and Panama, the Embera-Wounaan tribe fits the bill when it comes to remoteness and vulnerability, making it an easy target for cartels. Sometimes, drug traffickers even disguise themselves as Christian missionaries, offering Bibles as proof of their ‘saintly’ intentions, but the locals know better by now.
Drug trafficking not only threatens tribal communities and degrades society, it also destroys the environment and contributes to climate change. Much like cattle ranchers and loggers who clear thousands of acres of land, drug traffickers destroy forests to build covert landing strips and roadways to move drugs through Central America. McSweeney and her team of researchers found that deforestation in Honduras quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, coinciding with the country’s booming cocaine movement.
Although indigenous peoples are the ones most threatened by drug trafficking, they also have the ability to stop the illegal drug trade from destroying their communities and their lands. A new report released by PRISMA, an organization based in El Salvador focusing on the protection of rural communities, finds that indigenous tribes are much more effective in fighting the ‘War on Drugs,’ and that deforestation has decreased, if not stopped altogether, in areas where the government protects indigenous land-use rights. “It’s not the government who fights organized crime, but the people themselves,” says a member of the Purepecha Costa Rican tribe.
In addition to manipulating isolated communities, drug traffickers take advantage of poverty-stricken areas where there are low levels of organization and ambiguous land and resource rights. Governments can prevent illegal drug markets and ensure the stability of their states by simply empowering the indigenous populations. By protecting indigenous rights and ensuring access to land and natural resources, governments give local tribes autonomy and legal recourses to fight back. With the support of their governments, indigenous peoples are able to organize efficiently and form effective checkpoints and patrols, not unlike neighborhood watch programs.
As in many rural situations, often times the solution to alleviating poverty and other social ills lies in the hands of the local community. One such success includes the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests (MAPF), an association of territorial authorities administering forests in Costa Rica. Indigenous peoples may live culturally different and secluded lives away from modern urban centers, but they most certainly know the lay of the land and how best to preserve it.