David Wrathall

College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences


I am part of a team that identified the international cocaine trade as a new major driver of deforestation in Central America. Since the emergence of Central America as a primary transit corridor for the drug trade (in the mid-2000s), over a million hectares of rainforest have been cleared for cattle ranches and other land-intensive activities in spatiotemporal patterns that we can statistically associate with narco-trafficking, and distinguish from background deforestation patterns. Most of this "narco-deforestation" has occurred in biodiversity hotspots, and accounts for 30 to 60% of deforestation occurring within official protected areas --national parks and UN World Heritage Sites comprising the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor-- threatening biodiversity, forest conservation, carbon sequestration, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods. The influx of drugs into the region is a product of an intensification of the war on drugs pushing traffickers into lower profile transit routes. Deforestation results as traffickers select land-intensive strategies, such as cattle ranching, for laundering the volumes of illicit cash that have poured into the region in recent years. This research has been published in ScienceEnvironmental Research Letters, and the Journal of Latin American Geographyand has been the subject of reporting in the GuardianBBCthe New York TimesNational GeographicScience Now, among many others. I have studied this topic as a principal investigator with grants from the Open Society Foundations, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Future Earth's Program for Early-stage Grants Advancing Sustainability Science (PEGASuS).

I am an assistant professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, where I primarily study climate change and human migration. 

Selected publications

McSweeney, K., Nielsen, E.A., Taylor, M.J., Wrathall, D.J., Pearson, Z., Wang, O., & Plumb, S.T. (2014) Drug policy as conservation policy: narco-deforestation. Science 343: 489-490.

Sesnie, S.E., Tellman, B., Wrathall, D., McSweeney, K., Nielsen, E., Benessaiah, K., ... & Rey, L. (2017) A spatio-temporal analysis of forest loss related to cocaine trafficking in Central America. Environmental Research Letters 12: 054015.

McSweeney, K., Richani, N., Pearson, Z., Devine, J., & Wrathall, D.J. (2017) Why do narcos invest in rural land? Journal of Latin American Geography 16: 3-29.