UI Team Researches Price of Drug Trafficking on Forests in Central America

Tuesday, February 4 2014

MOSCOW, Idaho — A group of researchers found something unexpected during their work in Central America: the deep scars drug trafficking is leaving on sensitive landscape.

The research team, including Erik Nielsen, a University of Idaho alum, and Spencer Plumb, a UI doctoral student, was focused on sustainable practices, geography and earth sciences when they noticed signs of “narco-deforestation.”

“Not only are societies being ripped apart, but forests are being ripped apart,” said Nielsen, now assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University.

A policy paper they penned was published Jan. 31 in Science magazine. In it, the researchers note drug traffickers are slashing forests, often within protected areas, to carve clandestine landing strips and roads, and to establish cattle ranches through which drug money can be laundered.

“Seeing firsthand the effects of trafficking on the land and realizing the severe impact international drug trafficking policy could have on tropical forests and indigenous communities was astonishing,” Plumb said. “Originally, we were researching the potential effects of forest carbon offset programs on community-based conservation, but we came back with an understanding that drug trafficking was driving deforestation and eroding community forest governance.”

Their conclusion resulted from numerous individual lines of inquiry that converged “serendipitously” when Nielsen and his colleagues began noticing the same disturbing trend at multiple sites in Guatemala and Honduras .

“Around 2007, we started to see this pretty amazing uptick in deforestation in communities where I’ve been doing research for a long time,” Nielsen said. “We started asking, ‘What’s going on here?’ The presence of narco-traffickers was the response.”

Nielsen explained that the “cat-and-mouse” game of interdiction and evasion has been pushing traffickers into more remote areas as trafficking was squeezed out of Mexico and the Caribbean and pushed into Central America.

“This is affecting conservation of the globally significant Mesoamerican Biological Corridor,” Nielsen said. He called biosphere reserves in the area “equal to the Grand Canyon in terms of how the international community looks at their cultural and biological values. There is going to be a long-term consequence.”

While Nielsen and Plumb acknowledged that they are not drug policy experts, they hope this research will influence those who are, including leaders of governments seeking to determine how to proceed in the oft-criticized war on drugs.

”We hope that the U.S. and other countries in the region can rethink international drug policies with a clearer understanding of the drug war’s unintended consequences on biodiversity conservation in the region.

The team will continue to investigate drug movement effects on deforestation.


**Media Contact: Jodi Walker, College of Natural Resources, (208) 885-2737, jwalker@uidaho.edu

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