Drug trade destroying forests

Erik Nielsen, in his office at Northern Arizona University, discusses details of his studies into tropical forest conservation in Latin America and how drug traffickers are causing major deforestation in the region. (Taylor Mahoney/Arizona Daily Sun)

The remains of a burned-out airplane sits at the edge of a primitive runway cut crudely into the old-growth rainforest of Honduras. It’s become a common sight in the national parks of Central America.

Narco traffickers will clearcut a landing strip, fly in their drugs and then torch the plane and hop a commercial airline home. The drugs are driven on to the United States from there.

Erik Nielsen, an assistant professor of environmental science at Northern Arizona University, has spent two decades working on conservation issues in the region. He’s studied everything from endangered turtles to paying indigenous people for carbon offsets.

But about eight years ago, he started noticing an increase in deforestation that he couldn’t explain. Over time, as he spoke with locals, he learned the cause. He now refers to it as “narco-deforestation.”

Narcotics cartels started shifted their smuggling operations south to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in 2006 after Mexican President Felipe Calderón dispatched military forces across his country to combat cartels.

“They’ve been pushed out of Mexico, so they’re going to Central America now,” Nielsen said. “Before 2007, the region had no infrastructure. Now it’s everywhere.”

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