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A new study has recently added environmental destruction to the list of problems associated with cocaine and the drug industry. The research concludes that the cultivation of the coca plant has led to the rise of deforestation in Colombia – home to one of the world’s richest biodiversity hot spots. Additionally, the process of converting coca into cocaine has been proven to have an equally adverse effect on the environment. Most people are aware of the social impact of drug trade worldwide but few realize the environmental side effects related to the process. For Colombia, which has cultivated the coca plant for over 4.000 years as part of their culture, the result of increasing global demand between 1987 and 2000 meant that national coca production exploded to a worrying 74% of the world’s total production.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, highlighted that only a part of the demonstrated deforestation was directly related to the cultivation of coca bushes. What happens is, remote areas attract the coca growers who then create an economic hub, generating lots of associated agricultural activities. Ecologist an co-author of the study, Liliana M. Davalos, explained to National Geographic News “In southern Colombia we found geographically that there is just more probability of losing the forest close to [coca cultivation], [...] And the more coca around you, the more forest you’re likely to lose – the sheer amount of coca in the vicinity has an effect.”
The findings shed a light on the increasing need for legal protection of Colombian forests which is home to many animal species – including harpy eagles, tapirs, golden poison frogs, and spectacled bears – that are at risk of extinction. A case study on Colombian drug trade from 2009 singles out destruction of habitat, soil erosion and the pollution of both air and water as the major environmental problems stemming from coca production. Due to the illegality of coca growth, the farmers place their fields on hillsides to hide their activities but rarely employ soil conservation techniques. The farmers rarely expect to cultivate the area long-term as a consequence of the governments active eradication campaign, but when they have cleared the land, wind and rain strips off the topsoil – leaving the ground infertile to both farmers and the original plant life.
Pollution is also a factor as the farmers use pesticides and heavy fertilizers to grow the coca. The chemicals travel through the soil and contaminates ground water which eventually leads to the rivers and streams, where fish and other aquatic life is smothered. Eventually, the local population is affected when their water supply gets tainted and their fishing destroyed.
The good news is that the new study suggests the total amount of land used for coca production is declining which may correspond with a decrease in demand in the US. The bad news is that farmers are increasingly clearing new plots for cultivation which keeps deforestation itself on the rise. Davalos and her colleagues told National Geographic that their research made one thing clear: “There’s a long chain here connecting everything, and it goes from consumption all the way back to the forest.”