A seized granadillo shipment in Nicaragua

Demand from Chinese buyers has contributed to the growth of an illicit trafficking network that is moving record amounts of granadillo wood out of Nicaragua, according to a new report by investigative website Confidencial.

The Confidencial report finds that exports of granadillo have grown exponentially in Nicaragua since 2008. The wood is traditionally used to make musical instruments like marimbas, but is also in demand by furniture producers and makers of luxury items like Rolls Royces and yachts. 

(Watch a video of the Confidencial report below). 

In 2008 just over $127,000 of granadillo were exported from Nicaragua to six countries. In 2011, that number grew to $6 million worth of exports. The explosion in demand was driven by an influx of Chinese buyers, the Confidencial report states. Chinese buyers began to use Nicaragua as a primary source of granadillo after facing stricter controls on wood exports in other Central American countries like Panama, Nicaragua's second-largest wood exporter told Confidencial.

The inceased demand has fed the growth of a "wood mafia" that illegally harvests granadillo from forest reserves and moves it out of Nicaragua. In one sign of the burgeoning trade, in January 2012 the military seized a $1.35 million shipment of granadillo in a single operation. 

InSight Crime Analysis

As the Confidencial report highlights, wildlife trafficking can be a very lucrative business, depending on the product. Granadillo sells for $11 per board-foot (a unit of measurement for lumber). And with over 570,000 board-feet seized in Nicaragua seized so far in 2011, this represents some $6.2 million in profits. 

Nicaragua's wood trafficking "mafia" works similiarly to the drug trade, in the sense that both businesses are dependent on a network of transporters to move the product, and a network of complicit officials who turn a blind eye. Confidencial notes that while some truck drivers who move illicit granadillo shipments have been arrested, this hasn't brought authorities any closer to building a case against the real "kingpins" behind the trade. 

The illegal timber industry is a significant problem elsewhere in the region, including Colombia and Peru. Peru's illegal timber exports are thought to bring in up to $72 million in profits per year.