- Despite efforts by the U.S. and Colombia to crack down on cocaine production, the land used to grow the crop in Colombia is at an all-time high.
- After cattle ranching and land grabbing, coca cultivation is one of the main drivers of deforestation in Colombia, especially in protected areas such as national parks.
- Although road development plans promised by a 2016 peace deal do not appear to be producing new transportation infrastructure in these remote regions, Global Forest Watch shows many of the country’s coca regions reported a large number of deforestation alerts within primary rainforest.
Colombian authorities have announced they will investigate 33 gas stations for allegedly selling an estimated 70 million gallons (265 million liters) of gasoline to cocaine producers in rural regions of the country where roads are scare or non-existent.
As the amount of land used for cocaine production in Colombia continues to hit record highs, the Attorney General’s Office has recommended stricter regulation of gasoline sales in the coca-growing regions.
The town of Riosucio, in the western department of Chocó, reported 1.2 million gallons (4.5 million liters) of annual gasoline sales. The authorities say that quantity is roughly comparable to the busiest gas station in downtown Bogotá — even though Riosucio has a population of only 20,000 and lacks basic road infrastructure such as bridges. With only few roadways, portions of Riosucio municipality are inaccessible by car. Transportation is often carried out on motorized boats, known as lanchas, over river corridors.
In the first five months of 2019, Global Forest Watch shows deforestation alerts in Riosucio, associated with an expanding agricultural frontier, stretching into the primary forests of the Darién Gap and Los Katíos National Park.
Another gas station with suspiciously high sales was located in Tumaco, in Nariño department, the municipality with the largest area of coca cultivation. Authorities in Tumaco have also reported the theft of oil from the Trans-Andean Pipeline being funneled into cocaine production. The crudely refined oil is often spilled into aquifers, creating stress for threatened and endemic species in the exceptionally biodiverse rainforest.
Near the border with Venezuela, in Norte de Santander department, the Attorney General’s Office has identified two gas stations with abnormally high sales. Contraband oil smuggled across the border from Venezuela is often channeled to coca base processing operations, according to Insight Crime. Global Forest Watch shows deforestation alerts in Tibú municipality in Norte de Santander in the first five months of 2019.
A total of 75 gallons (284 liters) of gasoline are needed to process 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and the United States is the number one consumer.
Although cattle ranching and land grabbing are the two top drivers of deforestation in Colombia, coca growing is another important factor. Environment Minister Ricardo Lozano told Colombian daily El Tiempo that coca cultivation was responsible for 24 percent of deforestation in 2017. Seventeen of Colombia’s 59 national parks have been affected by deforestation caused by coca cultivation. Illegal mining, led by criminal armed groups, is another driver of deforestation and environmental destruction.
The government’s Geographical Institute Agustín Codazzi shows road networks remain scarce in the remote areas of the country where coca is often transported to clandestine cocaine production facilities on the backs of mules.
Among other goals, a landmark peace agreement signed in 2016 between the government and the country’s largest armed group, the FARC, aimed to address illegal coca cultivation through a crop-substitution program and expand roadway development in remote areas. Often coca growers live in regions of the country where the costs of bringing traditional crops to market is prohibitively high because of a lack of road infrastructure.
In addition to regulating the supply of gasoline in Colombia’s coca-growing regions, the Attorney General’s Office has ordered the electricity grid to be cut off in a region known for illicit marijuana cultivation, subjecting four municipalities to “a blanket blackout.”
President Iván Duque, under pressure from the United States to crack down on cocaine production, has largely abandoned the crop-substitution program signed by the previous government while announcing the return of a controversial aerial-spraying policy that was suspended in 2015 by the Constitutional Court. President Donald Trump has backed Duque’s hard-line policies, announcing he would double aid if the country resumed the use of glyphosate, a herbicide produced by agrochemical company Monsanto and classified by the U.N.’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable carcinogen.
Despite the peace agreement’s goal to improve road infrastructure, Colombia’s transportation network remain in poor shape. This year a series of landslides have closed the major highways connecting the impoverished western Pacific region and the eastern Orinoco regions to the rest of the country. Some road projects, however, are moving forward, such as one involving ex-combatants from the FARC in the northwest Urabá region.
William Laurance, a research professor at James Cook University in Australia, has been studying the deforestation effects of road development in tropical rainforests for more than 35 years. His research has shown that building roads through tropical rainforests causes accelerated deforestation.
Road construction is one of the main threats facing Colombia’s Amazon region, according to a recent report by Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG). Currently, this region has a total of 32,780 kilometers (20,370 miles) of roads, with 2,336 kilometers (1,452 miles) found in indigenous reserves and 7,975 kilometers (4,955 miles) in protected areas. Four illegal roadways have already broken into the world’s largest protected area within a tropical rainforest, Chiribiquete National Natural Park.
Banner image: Small-scale deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
About the reporter: Taran Volckhausen is Colorado-based freelance journalist who regularly reports on environmental issues in Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @tvolckhausen.
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Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.