Story by Laurel Morales
Fronteras Desk

An Arizona scientist working in Central America has discovered an unexpected consequence of the illicit drug business: deforestation.

Northern Arizona University's Erik Nielsen has been doing research in Honduras and Guatemala on forest carbon for decades.

Recently, he came across what he describes as forest slashing for clandestine landing strips, roads and large cattle ranches in the middle of remote rain forests.

"What really blew me away was coming back and seeing very large clearings cattle pastures, which would be unheard of because indigenous people don't raise cattle, and they don't clear big swaths of forest because it tales a lot of money."

Nielsen said he and other scientists switched their research focus. They spoke to members of the indigenous communities, who live in the forest, and discovered narcotic traffickers were to blame for the deforestation.

The area in which Nielsen is working and found the damage is a World Heritage site, with the same protected status as the Grand Canyon.

Fronteras Desk is a collaborative of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.