Cocaine's Latest Victim: 'The Waters Run Red.' (Environmental Damage from Cocaine Production)(includes Related Articles on International Narcotics Control Board Report and Worldwide Drug Control)

By Gatjanis, Greg | UN Chronicle, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Cocaine's Latest Victim: 'The Waters Run Red.' (Environmental Damage from Cocaine Production)(includes Related Articles on International Narcotics Control Board Report and Worldwide Drug Control)


Gatjanis, Greg, UN Chronicle


From a fixed wing aircraft, Peruvian anti-narcotic officers track a winding stream through the mountain jungles. Through the rain forest canopy, they watch for a change in the water's natural tint. "When it starts running red", one of them says, "you know you're getting close."

By most accounts the cocaine trade has claimed the environment among its latest victims. Many experts agree that cocaine production has caused extensive, even irreparable environmental damage to the Andean highlands. An innovative drug control effort shared by the United Nations and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has not only been effective, but has revealed new linkages between illicit drug production and environmental harm.

Across four millennia, coca has been a cultural staple in the Andes. Today, scientists say the explosion of the illicit cocaine trade since the 1970s has caused widespread damage in the higher elevations of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Using violent land clearing methods, coca farmers have razed 10 per cent of Peru's upper jungles and have ruined vast stretches of soil. The greatest environmental harm, however, may come not from deforestation, but from the chemicals needed to refine cocaine.

The essential chemicals--mostly acids, solvents and bases--are used first to unlock the leaves' cocaine alkaloids and then to purify the drug in order to ensure higher value. Although the amount of chemical by-products discharged is uncertain, their effects are clear. One scientist estimates that 20 million litres of cocaine chemicals are dumped each year in the Colombian jungles, while in Bolivia, a leading environmental group says some 38,000 tons of toxic waste are discharged annually in the Chapare and Yungas regions.

Nowhere have cocaine chemicals caused more damage than in Peru, Consider that nearly two thirds of the world's cocaine supply originates from coca leaf grown in a 150-mile stretch of mountain jungle in the country's Upper Huallaga Valley. Because of the large amounts of water needed for processing, cocaine labs there are often built near rivers and streams. These waterways serve not only as constant water supplies, but convenient dump sites for spent chemicals.

According to one environmental expert, the rivers and streams in that Valley "are flooded year after year with vast quantities of toxic waste and pollution". More than 150 streams and rivers have suffered "irreparable harm" and have lost entire species of plant life. Streams, once teeming with life, are now dead. and the fish that do survive are feared poisoned or suffer from genetic defects. Reportedly, fish have been found with twisted spines and other deformities. When the chemicals are carried downstream, they threaten water supplies and irrigation systems in the lowlands. Worse, some scientists believe the chemicals hay. e now reached humans through the food chain, but their long-term effects may not be known for years.

Scientists have been prevented from conducting detailed research, because the most severely affected areas are controlled by traffickers and insurgents. In 1989, for instance, a leading scientist was caught and stoned to death while conducting research in the upper jungles of Peru.

The chemicals most widely used to refine cocaine and heroin have numerous legitimate uses. The question for Governments then is how to prevent these dual-use chemicals from reaching illicit drug labs without needlessly interfering in legitimate industry.

In recent years, the UN and the United States DEA have led an innovative and ambitious preventive effort, cosponsoring training schools on chemical control for police officials and providing technical assistance to regulatory, trade and enforcement bodies responsible for chemical oversight in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

In June 1993, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) played a pivotal role in the first DEA international conference on chemical trafficking in Rome, with more than 100 officials from 49 countries attending. …

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