People and Ecosystems in Colombia: Casualties of the Drug War

By Peterson, Sarah | Independent Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

People and Ecosystems in Colombia: Casualties of the Drug War


Peterson, Sarah, Independent Review


Opposition to the "war on drugs" comes from numerous disparate camps, from libertarian scholars to moderate public-health officials to liberal activists for social justice. Concerns expressed by those seeking to change the way this "war" is waged are various and include criticisms of the inadequate resources devoted to treating drug addicts, the erosion of civil liberties at the hands of an increasingly powerful narcoenforcement complex, the disproportionate effect of drug-law enforcement on certain ethnic groups and economic classes, and the monumental wastefulness of a criminal justice system consumed with punishing nonviolent drug offenders. In this article, I discuss yet another reason to reevaluate the contemporary U.S. antidrug strategy: it directly threatens the health of people and ecosystems outside U.S. borders. My objective here is specifically to illustrate some of the negative effects that contemporary U.S. antidrug policy has on people and the environment in the Andean/Amazonian region of northwest South America. I begin with a brief look at the extent of coca production in the region, then consider some of the concerns that advocates of environmental protection and social justice have voiced with regard to antidrug efforts in this region. I then examine some social and environmental consequences of aerial chemical-herbicide spraying in Colombia, a primary component of a $1.3 billion congressional aid package intended to support Bogota's antidrug Plan Colombia.

Background: Coca Production

A perennial shrub of the genus Erythroxylum, the coca plant thrives in poor, acidic soils that can support few other commercially cultivated crops. Most cultivated coca comprises only two species, Erythroxylum coca and E. novogranatese, although other related species exist in the wild and are cultivated sparsely for local use (Plowman 1986, 9). According to Patrick Clawson and Rensselaer Lee, "[coca] is currently grown almost exclusively in the Andean countries of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia ... [but] can grow almost anywhere in tropical South America and in tropical regions of the world generally" (1996, 131). A coca bush begins to produce harvestable leaves within a year to a year and half of planting; its leaves can be harvested two to four times a year; and each plant can remain productive for up to twenty-five years (Clawson and Lee 1996, 132; Gardner 2001).

Although recent alternative-development programs have met with some success in reducing the production of coca in Bolivia and Peru, these reductions have been offset by skyrocketing production in Colombia (Clawson and Lee 1996, 18, 160; U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP] 2001, 97). In fact, the area of land planted with coca in Colombia increased from approximately 41,000 hectares in 1992 to nearly 123,000 hectares in 1999 (Vargas 2000). The currently planted area is approximately 120,000 hectares (Will 2001).

Though the vast majority of coca goes to processors to be converted to coca paste and eventually to cocaine, some is marketed and used legally for medical and cultural purposes. (1) Legal consumption occurs primarily at the level of household use, as tea or various medical remedies. A far smaller amount goes to overseas pharmaceutical or other commercial interests, such as Coca-Cola, which derives some of its beverages' "natural flavors" from coca leaves that have been stripped of their psychotropic chemicals (Clawson and Lee 1996, 136).

Regional Environmental and Social Concerns

The Andean/Amazonian region where most of the world's coca is grown, the main area targeted by drug eradication campaigns, is the subject of concern among environmental and social activists alike. This region contains diverse ecosystems (ranging from the Andean altiplano to the Amazon rain forest), innumerable species, and threatened indigenous peoples, so the preservation of its environmental integrity has tremendous instrumental and intrinsic value. …

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