Plants to People: Traveling the Illicit Global Highway

It may start with a single villager harvesting a medicinal plant in Kashmir, but that plant joins a network smuggling everything, including people. Experts say smuggled objects often come into contact with trafficked people and the ultimate goal is profit. That profit is hard to quantify, but it was in recently estimated to be $870 billion annually.

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Plants to People: Traveling the Illicit Global Highway

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If a poor villager in the Kashmir Valley pulls a rare medicinal plant from the earth and sells it to someone who plans to illegally move it out of the country, is that villager part of a transnational wave of organized crime?

Not directly, experts say, but the plant that villager picks and sells is likely to move on an illicit highway that’s increasingly jammed with wildlife, mineral wealth, drugs, weapons and people.

“If you’re talking about the lowest levels that are oscillating and it’s regional, then you might not see the interconnectedness of it,” says Louise Shelley, the founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. “But those commodities are all loaded onto the same truck. So you may have smuggled cigarettes moving along with ivory.”

By that logic, even if the Kashmiri villager is smuggling plants not because he wants to plunder his region’s botanical treasures but because there are too few legitimate jobs in the area, that villager is feeding a vast network that plunders natural resources and exploits people.

It’s difficult to quantify the value trafficked and smuggled people and materials, but the numbers that enforcement agencies have collected are staggering.

Profits in the illicit wildlife trade, excluding fisheries and timber, are estimated to be as high as $10 billion each year, according to a 2012 report from the World Wildlife Fund and Dalberg, a consulting firm. Profits from forced labor could be as high as $150 billion each year, the International Labour Organization reported in 2014. That’s just one part of an industry that includes the weapons trade, drug smuggling and sex trafficking – three crimes that are widely considered to be among the most lucrative of all illegal activities.

In total, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that transnational organized crime generated $870 billion in 2009.

Someone as low in the chain as a plant smuggler in a rural area might largely operate in an isolated way, without much connection to the broader world of organized crime. But, somewhere along the line, that plant is likely to be handled by someone who was trafficked into forced labor, says Kristiina Kangaspunta, chief of the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons Unit at UNODC.

“If you have illegal logging or these plants that are smuggled out of Kashmir, in order to produce these products, probably you would need trafficked persons – people who are forced to do that,” Kangaspunta says.

People involved in trafficking and smuggling will do whatever is necessary to maximize their profits, Kangaspunta says. If they can make more money by using forced labor, then they will.

But part of the problem in stopping trafficking and smuggling – whether of people or of objects – is that no one knows for sure just how widespread this problem is. According to Kangaspunta, the UNODC operates on the assumption that huge numbers of trafficking and smuggling cases aren’t even tracked.

“There is of course a big attention to those big transnational cases, but very much of it is local, quite low-level, involving only a few traffickers, only a very few victims,” she says.

Seasonal workers in particular are often exploited, she says. They’re recruited to work for a few months in a neighboring area or even another country, but they’re never paid.

But Shelley says that even those lowest-tier trafficking and forced labor situations are part of the international problem.

“I don’t think that people understand how interconnected all of this is,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the people doing multiple activities, sometimes it’s different commodities going along the same routes. But if you follow that route, those checkpoints of where it all crosses the border, there are other things crossing there.”

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