Coca cultivation and eradication destroy rainforest
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
September 15, 2005
1.8 million hectares of rainforest in Colombia have been destroyed to make room for drug plantations according to the director of Amazon Institute of Scientific Investigation (Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones Científicas).
Luz Marina Mantilla told the AFP that the increased presence of narcotraffickers in the Amazon region of Colombia has displaced indigenous populations in addition to endangering the lives of scientists working there.
Colombia has long battled a cocaine-fueled insurgency in its remote regions. In an effort to destroy the rebels’ chief source of income, the Colombian government has targeted coca fields with aerial spraying of herbicides. Coca provides the key ingredient in cocaine and its eradication is a fundamental part of the US-backed war on drugs.
Colombia is a leading producer of coca and much of the country’s coca is grown by poor farmers because it generates more income than any other crop. Typically farmers convert the plant into coca paste and sell it to groups — including paramilitaries and Colombian rebels — who refine it into cocaine and export it to markets like the United States, which is the world’s largest consumer of the narcotic.
Drug eradification efforts have focused on aerial fumigation programs where herbicides (a mixture that includes Monsanto Corporation’s Roundup and Cosmo-Flux 411F) are dropped by crop-duster planes on suspect vegetation. Since the concoction is a non-selective herbicide, surrounding vegetation — including subsistence crops and native plants — are killed as well. Environmentalists, indigenous rights’ groups, and even the government of Ecuador have complained that widespread spraying of herbicides could pose health threats to locals as well as damage to the environment. Local reports suggest that farmers often replant coca seedlings soon after spraying, making the whole exercise somewhat futile.
Earlier this year, a report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy showed that a massive aerial spraying offensive last year failed to reduce the area of coca under cultivation in Colombia. Drug eradification efforts in the country have lately resulted in the shifting of large-scale coca production into the extensive rainforests of Choco state. In March 2005, the Associated Press reported that large-scale coca production was moving into the extensive rainforests of the Chocó state, a biodiversity hotspot in northwest Colombia. Poor farmers are clearing forest to plant coca seedlings while hunting local wildlife for food.
The ecological impacts of coca production are significant as well. Each acre of requires clearing of roughly four acres of forest while the dumping of chemicals used to process coca leaves (including kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone, and carbide) pollutes local waterways.
Additionally, critics of the US’s efforts in Colombia note that the eradication program has done little to slow the supply of cocaine that enters the U.S. Despite increased worldwide demand, prices of cocaine have been steadily dropping over the years on American streets, indicating availability of the drugs has not diminished.
September 19, 2005: Ecuador asked the United Nations to pursue research on the health implications of using glyphosate in their coca eradication efforts. According to a report from Reuters, Ecuador’s President Alfred Palacio “told the opening meeting of the U.N. General Assembly’s 60th session that studies done to date on the safety of the herbicide glyphosate ‘suffer from technical and methodological deficiencies.'” He notes that “while glyphosate is commonly used by farmers around the world, previous studies, while flawed, have identified a wide range of potential health risks from the herbicide including chemical burns on the skin, depression, genetic damage, skeletal retardation and various cancers.” (Reuters September 19, 2005)