University of Alabama, Huntsville, Huntsville , USA
Around the world, illicit economic activities have profound impacts on land-cover and land-use change (LCLUC). Crimes that exploit the environment are highly lucrative, having reached an estimated global economic value of US$91 to $259 billion per year. One such landscape that has been targeted by various environmental crimes is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) in Central America. The MBC is a patchwork of protected areas, conservation schemes, and wildlife corridors containing an estimated 7-10% of the world’s species, and was established with more than $500 million of domestic and foreign investment. Despite its conservation importance, forest loss rates along the MBC were among the highest in the world over the last two decades. Accelerated deforestation throughout the MBC coincided in space and time with a shift to Central America as the preferred ‘transit zone’ for cocaine trafficking, or ‘narco-trafficking’, accounting for more than 80% of all U.S.-bound cocaine flows since 2010. To slow forest loss and degradation throughout the MBC, we need a more detailed understanding of where, when, and how much narco-trafficking initiates and accelerates LCLUC.
Detectable spatio-temporal signatures of these processes are needed to scale-up localized knowledge of narco-trafficking operations to regional and global assessments of the impacts on LCLUC. In the proposed project, we meet this need using narco-trafficking in the Central American MBC as a case study for how to render illicit activity spatially and temporally explicit – in other words, make the hidden visible. We use a novel combination of remote-sensing multitemporal-data fusion, counterfactual land change modeling, and synthesis of criminal activity datasets to characterize and predict the impact of narco-traffickers on LCLUC in and around protected areas across the MBC. Focusing on three internationally recognized protected areas and their surrounding landscapes– Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) (~ 35,000
km2), Honduras’s Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR) (~ 10,500 km2), and Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula (OP) (~ 3,600 km2) – our project addresses three integrated objectives: (1) identify the timing of increased narco-trafficking activity for each PA; (2) locate hotspots of accelerated and/or expanded LUC attributable to narco-trafficking; and (3) quantify LUC and degradation directly and indirectly attributable to narco-trafficking. This project will demonstrate the potential of remote sensing advances in LCLUC research to provide a novel spatially and temporally detailed quantification of land change driven by clandestine processes, which will challenge current perceptions of the relative importance of conventional vs. illicit causes of LCLUC.