Drugs barons accused of destroying Guatemala’s rainforest

Cocaine barons and farmers have been accused of cutting down swaths of Guatemala’s rainforest to carve out airstrips and to launder drug money, threatening biodiversity and ancient Maya ruins.

More than a fifth of the 2.1m-hectare tropical forest – Latin America’s biggest after the Amazon – has been burned and cleared by settlers who are often working for drug traffickers, according to environmentalists and human rights groups.

Official figures show the Maya biosphere reserve has lost 21% of its cover since being declared a protected zone in 1990, with impoverished peasants allegedly acting as an advance guard for wealthy drugs-linked farmers. Others put the number even higher.

“The narcos use violence and poverty as tools to push into the reserve,” said Claudia Samayoa, director of Udefegua, a human rights advocacy group. “They cultivate land, put in some cattle, but often it’s just a front.” Poverty, malnutrition, unequal land distribution and the lack of state services gave many such communities little alternative, she said.

A colour-coded map recently published by Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (Conap) showed the western half of the reserve covered in orange and red blotches, representing areas burnt more than three times.

Some 306,000 hectares were lost between 2001-06, it estimated.