The coca leaf contains less than 1% cocaine and has much the same effect as caffeine. Therefore, even though cocaine is processed from coca leaves, the two products are dramatically different in effects and usage. One of the challenges in limiting coca growth is to satisfy this benign traditional demand while eliminating the cash crop business that supplies the cocaine producers.
The evolution of coca into the cash crop of the Andes has been occurring for the last century. From the commercial (Coca Cola is widely known for past usage of the drug in their product) and medicinal (along with opium, cocaine was used to alleviate pain in the injured during the Civil War and afterward) sales of the early twentieth century to the multi-billion dollar drug business that exists today, coca had and has a significant influence upon economic life in the Andes. Strategies to arrest the drug problem can be separated into two distinct approaches: reduction of demand and reduction of supply.
When considering the problems of the drug use, most of the attention of scholars and professionals focuses on the social and economic aspects of the situation. Until recently very little work has isolated the environmental consequences of the increasing coca cultivation, which are considerable. The Andean region is among the most ecologically diverse and sensitive areas of the Earth and it has been subjected to increasingly stressful abuse in recent years as a result of drug crop cultivation. There are three primary environmental consequences of coca and poppy cultivation: deforestation and the destruction of the habitat, soil erosion, and pollution of both air and water. Additionally, the processing of the raw drug crops into their refined forms also has a destructive environmental consequence.
Easily the most visible environmentally destructive effect of coca and poppy cultivation is deforestation. During a fifteen year period beginning in the 1970 s, 700,000 hectares of rain forest in the Amazon basin was destroyed to clear land for coca growth. The immediate effect of deforestation is the reduction of natural habitat and subsequent reduction in the bio-diversity of the region. A secondary effect of the deforestation derives from the typical method of preparing an area for cultivation through a slash and burn procedure. This burning is the major source of air pollution in the jungle. Though these consequences are significant, the most critical effect of deforestation is that it leads to soil erosion.
Due to the illegality of coca and poppy growth the farmers place their fields on hillsides, which are more difficult for the government agents to reach than fields located on the valley floors. Because the government does pursue an active eradication campaign, the farmers rarely expect to enjoy long-term cultivation of their fields and, consequently, rarely employ soil conservation techniques. The coca fields are planted along the contours of the land with little terracing and the fields are kept bare of plants except for the coca or poppy plants. These methods, in combination with the steep slopes, serve to strip away topsoil with every strong wind and heavy rain, very quickly making the fields infertile not only for further cultivation but for jungle plant life as well. Recent observers over-flying the jungle describe it as a patchwork quilt of green broken by patches of gray desolation. In addition to causing soil infertility, the topsoil runoff fills waterways and rivers with sediment changing their courses, causing flooding, and killing fish and aquatic plant life by lowering the oxygen content of the water and smothering the river bottoms. Locals who used to depend on the large fish in the rivers for food, no longer find any fish large enough to eat.
Pollution is also a factor in the environmental destructiveness of coca and poppy cultivation. The pesticides used by the growers travel through the soil into the ground water and eventually into the rivers and streams. Pesticides are inherently toxic to the insects but they can also harm larger animals and people in greater concentrations. Fish and other aquatic life are particularly susceptible to this contamination. Another source of pollution is the fertilizer used by the growers, which also enters the water systems after chemically "burning" the more sensitive vegetation of the region. The fertilizer in the water encourages the algae to grow at increased rates while killing the organisms that feed on it. As a result, the algae overwhelms other aquatic plant life and restricts water flow.
The processing of coca leaves into coca paste and cocaine has its own environmentally damaging effects. U.S. State Department studies indicate that "10 million liters of sulfuric acid, 16 million liters of ethyl ether, 8 million liters of acetone, and from 40-770 million liters of kerosene" are poured directly into the ground by cocaine processors working in the Andean region, mainly Colombia, yearly. The consequences of this pollution are quickly felt in the small rivers where the aquatic life is devastated. The primary growing area in southern Colombia, the Caqueta river basin, is particularly polluted. There have also been increasing reports of sickness among the people and livestock of these areas, who rely on the rivers and well for water.
In addition to its standing as the world s premier cocaine producer, Colombia now ranks as the world s third largest producer of opium, the largest in the western hemisphere. North America has been receiving an increasing amount of heroin in recent years as the Cali cartel has taken advantage of the land less suitable for coca growth and planted it with poppies. This increase in heroin growth in Colombia appears to be unrelated to the Opium Wars in Southeast Asia as the increase in U.S. consumption came about only after increased exports from Colombia had been established. Thus, the Colombians seem to have increased demand for their heroin in the U.S. through increased supply at lower prices and not through supplanting the previous supply from Southeast Asia. Estimations place total area under poppy cultivation at 20,000 hectares, which has ideal growing conditions slightly hotter and dryer than coca requires. Though the effects of poppy growth in Colombia are largely unpublished, the same farmers are growing both crops and it can be assumed that similar damage is being committed in poppy cultivation as is being done in coca cultivation.
During the last several years drug traffickers have increased their ownership of agriculturally suitable land four-fold; they now control through direct or intermediary ownership 8%-11% of all agricultural land in Colombia. This is extremely alarming as this control gives the drug traffickers more direct opportunity to utilize the land for drug crop cultivation, which, as stated above, is extremely destructive to the jungle environment.
In 1992, Colombia only produced 13 percent of the world s coca, but its cartels now have a strangle-hold on the world s cocaine processing, at 70-80 percent of total production and distribution world wide. This concentration of business has had an enormous effect in Colombia. First, estimates place the total of drug money repatriated into the Colombian economy to be as high as $7 billion, this is almost as large as the total legitimate exports for Colombia which were $7.6 billion in 1993. These huge profits exert an enormous influence over every aspect of life in Colombia. The trafficking organizations employ thousands of people from the farmer in the field to irregular troops and assassins to pilots, chemists, lawyers, and other professionals. These vast amounts of money give the traffickers significant means to protect themselves from the law both local and national. Over $100 million is spent on bribes to Colombian officials yearly according to estimates by U.S. law enforcement officials. This level of influence has led some to declare that Colombia is the world s first "Narco-Democracy" which has turned the corner from trying to contain the pockets of corruption into a situation where honest officials are trying to do their job while outnumbered by those who are working for the drug traffickers. Evidence of bribery has extended throughout the Colombian government including the former president of the national congress, congressmen, judges, army officers, and policemen. A comment by Cali cartel leader Gilberto Rodrigez Orejuela illustrates this, "We don t kill judges or ministers, we buy them." A former DEA officer states the situation just as clearly when he says that he "cannot think of a single political or judicial institution that has not been penetrated by the narco-traffickers." Even more importantly, the Colombian constitution forbids the extradition of criminals. This is a direct influence of the drug traffickers, whose only fear when arrested is that they might be subject to a justice system free of their influence.
Continent: South America
Region: Eastern South America
Country: Colombia Up to 20 percent of the Andean region is suitable for coca production with the primary producers of raw coca being Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. However, the primary exporter of processed cocaine products is Colombia. Primary importers of processed cocaine are the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and more recently Eastern Europe.
Despite its efforts, Colombia has not constrained the flow of cocaine. Indeed, Colombia seems to have lost ground to the drug traffickers in several key areas. The traffickers have exerted their influence over the new constitution in two ways. First, the constitution forbids the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States where they would receive legitimate trials and severe sentencing if convicted. The same document places a maximum of 12 years incarceration on drug trafficking convictions. The large amounts of money available to the drug traffickers ensures that they will be able to afford the best lawyers for their defense, many of whom are former prosecutors. This premium defense makes convictions difficult in the United States and even more so in the corruptible courts of Colombia.
Though domestic law indisputably classifies coca growth and cocaine processing as illegal, there has been pervasive popular resistance towards its actual implementation. This resistance resulted in a provincial agreement by the government not to destroy coca fields smaller than 3 hectares. This agreement was broken by the government due to pressure from the United States. A second attack on government eradication policies came from environmentalist groups, allegedly in the pay of the drug cartels, which objected to the government s spraying of the herbicide glyphosate on the grounds that it destroys the environment and is harmful to the health of the people living in the region. The accusations of these groups are weakened by the fact that this herbicide is fully approved by the USEPA, is used in over 100 nations world wide, and has received no similar charges elsewhere.
Thus, the legal standing of coca growth and cocaine production is clear, but it meets considerable resistance from the population who value it for its traditional uses (discussed under the cultural sub-section), see it as their most economically profitable crop, by drug traffickers trying to preserve their livelihood, and by environmentalists who oppose the pollution of herbicide spraying.
The illegality of coca growth and cocaine production is officially a strictly internal matter of the Colombian determination, which has decided to comply with the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psycotropic Substances. However, the reality of the situation is quite different. The United States has considerable influence over the drug policies pursued by Colombia, just as it has considerable influence through out the Western Hemisphere, through the distribution of aid and economic agreements. The United States has also used limited military action to aid the DEA in crop destruction and drug seizures, but has withheld full military action because of the diplomatic complications. Colombia is not willing to give permission to the U.S. for an all out effort to eradicate the drug business. The U.S. has passed judgment on drug producing nations since 1986, essentially determining whether the country is contributing sufficient efforts towards counter-narcotics programs. A failing rating strips the country of its foreign aid eligibility and preferred trade status, both of these being strong deterrents to drug policy rebellion.
Act SiteHarm SiteExample ColombiaColombiaCocaine Environment and Conflict
TED Cases COCA Case COLCOCA Case PERUCOCA Case BOLCOCA Case QAT Case
ICE Cases ANGOLA Case
Go to ICE Home Page