- Cultivation of coca, the plant from which the drug cocaine is extracted, has long been considered a “deforestation multiplier” in the Andean Amazon rainforests of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.
- But a study published in the journal BioScience last month by a team of researchers with New York’s Stony Brook University found that most deforestation in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru isn’t caused by coca cultivation.
- The researchers hope that their study will help us learn from the past in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Cultivation of coca, the plant from which the drug cocaine is extracted, has long been considered a “deforestation multiplier” in the Andean Amazon rainforests of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.
For instance, a 2001 report by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy stated: “Coca cultivation and processing pose serious hazards to Colombia’s ecology. Several hectares of rain forest are slashed and burned for every hectare of coca planted.” Some independent monitoring projects and scientific publications (see here and here, for example) have also cited coca as a driver of deforestation in the Andean Amazon region.
But a study published in the journal BioScience last month by a team of researchers with New York’s Stony Brook University found that most deforestation in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru isn’t caused by coca cultivation. The researchers discovered a close statistical correlation between coca-growing operations and government infrastructure and other projects, leading them to conclude that coca cultivation, like deforestation itself, is actually the result of economic development projects begun in the 1960s to open the Amazon frontier that failed to deliver the promised benefits for local communities.
“The grand plan since the early 1960s was to build a highway from Bolivia in the south to Venezuela in the north, and encourage migration and agricultural expansion to open up the Amazon,” Stony Brook University Professor of Ecology and Evolution Liliana M. Dávalos, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This plan also needed new or improved connector roads between Andean cities and the lowlands. The development plans, with their promise of securing land and food for millions of Andean farmers, had the financial support of both national governments and international development agencies and organizations.”
After conducting a 2011 study, Dávalos found that coca was a good predictor of forest conversion across landscapes in southern Colombia, but that the effect disappeared when controlling for socioeconomic factors like poverty or armed conflict at the municipal scale. “The results were puzzling,” she said, “which is why I wanted to revisit the question in depth.”
For the present study, Dávalos and the team at Stony Brook examined the relationship between locations where coca was cultivated in 2014 and sites where historical development projects were undertaken. “The results are compelling,” Dávalos said. “In the Amazon, coca cultivation increases sharply close to the sites of those development projects. These projects began more than 30 years [ago] but their landscape footprint endures in the form of coca cultivation and deforestation.”
After looking at every publication from the past decade that measured deforestation in the Amazon frontier caused by coca crops and other causes, Dávalos and team say they found two distinct patterns. The first was that legal crops and pastures, not coca, directly caused most of the deforestation. The second was that coca cultivation was not associated with higher deforestation rates in almost every study they examined.
“Deforestation and coca cluster together in the Amazon frontier, but frontier dynamics is not a consequence of coca cultivation by itself. Instead, the dynamics sprung from efforts to develop western Amazonia,” Dávalos said.
Challenging conditions in the Amazon thwarted economic development plans from the outset, the researchers discovered. Investment in the programs dwindled and commitments to the farmers who had moved to the Amazon slopes and lowlands slowed through the 1970s and 1980s, causing a new form of agriculture to emerge in response to growing international demand for cocaine. Paul Gootenberg, a distinguished professor of history and sociology at Stony Brook University and a leading historian of cocaine who was not involved in the study, said that, given how cocaine consumption exploded during the 1970s, “it is unsurprising to find farmers adopting coca as a cash crop around that time, as other options diminished.”
Dávalos and her co-authors say that their analysis is especially relevant today as countries and international agencies commit to new development projects and coca cultivation continues unabated despite attempts to eradicate the crop. Some governments have proposed to shift their anti-drug strategies towards giving farmers more incentives to abandon coca.
Gootenberg agrees with the timeliness of the study, saying that, “Explaining where, how, and why farmers continue to plant coca requires an integrated understanding of the history, geography, and environment of the region.”
Dávalos and team hope that their study will help us learn from the past in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
“Improved roads and colonization projects opened the western Amazon frontier to migration, generating deforestation and, once support dwindled, setting the stage for coca cultivation,” the team writes in the study. “New studies also show coca cultivation generates negligible direct or indirect forest loss and fails to explain migration, whereas expanding legal agriculture, roads, displacement, and eradication increase deforestation. These findings highlight the urgent need to both commit development investment for the long term and set explicit conservation goals in western Amazonia.”
- Dávalos, L. M., Sanchez, K. M., & Armenteras, D. (2016). Deforestation and Coca Cultivation Rooted in Twentieth-Century Development Projects. BioScience. doi:10.1093/biosci/biw118