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Colombian VP: Add Ecological Devastation to Cocaine's Toll

UCLA Today

By Cynthia Lee

IN THE PAST, Colombian officials have tried with little success to get their message across to drug consumers about the devastating toll coca cultivation and cocaine production have taken on their country.

A cocaine lab and an array of empty plastic containers for coke-processing chemicals sit precariously on a mountainside. Trees capable of rooting down the soil were removed to make way for coca plants, leading to landslides.

A cocaine lab and an array of empty plastic containers for coke-processing chemicals sit precariously on a mountainside. Trees capable of rooting down the soil were removed to make way for coca plants, leading to landslides. (Courtesy of El Colombiano newspaper)

They have taken Colombia's victims of violence directly to Europe, where cocaine consumption is escalating, to tell their traumatic stories of kidnapping, displacement and loss of lives and limbs.
But that message was too strong, they were told. Don't victimize the drug consumer, they were advised, especially in Europe and in the U.S., where cocaine use is seen as a personal choice.
So His Excellency Francisco Santos Calderón, vice president of Colombia, a former journalist and a victim of kidnapping himself by the Medellín drug cartel, is delivering a new message that he hopes the world will take to heart: Cocaine use is killing Colombia's tropical rainforests, poisoning its rivers and land with toxic chemicals used in production of the drug, and ravaging a fragile ecosystem that sustains species of birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants that can be found nowhere else on this planet.
That was the message Calderón brought to a packed Charles E. Young Grand Salon in Kerckhoff Hall on Wednesday as part of a public awareness campaign that Colombia and Peru have organized called the Shared Responsibility Initiative.
By every possible measure of biodiversity — plant life, birds, reptiles, fish — Colombia ranks among the top 10 countries in the world, Calderón said. "This is the jewel of biodiversity that is being threatened," he said. Less than 6% of the Earth's total land is covered by rainforests, which nurture biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest extends over 35% of Colombia.
Two weeks ago, he said, a group of biologists and environmentalists from an international organization explored the nation's rainforest along the Pacific Coast and found five new species of amphibians, two new species of mammals and 100 birds that hadn't been classified before.
"They were so surprised … they thought they were in a new Eden," he said.
But this paradise is fast disappearing as coca production moves into the area. During an aerial tour he took recently with World Bank officials, Calderón saw the destruction of the jungle had accelerated. "It's going to be destroyed because of the habits of consumers of cocaine all over the world," he said.

For every gram of cocaine consumed, he said, four square meters of pristine rainforest disappears for good. Every year, due to coca production, he said, 494 acres of pristine rainforest is lost forever. Over the last 20 years, Colombia has lost about 5.4 million acres of tropical rainforest to coca cultivation, leaving behind denuded pockets of wasteland.
Smoke from the slash-and-burn technique used to clear the land before planting is a major source of pollution in the Colombian jungles. To make the jungle soil hospitable for coca plants, growers require about 150 kilograms of solid and 57 gallons of liquid herbicides and pesticides to process 2.5 acres of coca.
"After three or four crops, the land is practically depleted, and those chemicals stay there for hundreds and hundreds of years," Calderón said.
The processing of cocaine itself requires gasoline, cement, contaminated water and such chemicals as sulfuric acid and ammonium. All of this, plus tons of trash and vegetable waste, are scattered on the ground and thrown into rivers.
But despite this national "ecocide," he said, "this story is flying under the radar of the environmental organizations." It has not stirred the outrage that was generated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, although the environmental damage caused by cocaine in Colombia is 15 times worse.
Using its resources, the government has created four new national parks in the last five years, expanded protected sanctuaries for marine life, paid subsidies to communities to eradicate coca plants in an attempt to rehabilitate the land and spent millions on manual eradication of illicit crops.
But it is with this public awareness program — with websites, photo galleries dramatizing the ecological destruction and classroom materials — that Calderón hopes to find true victory over cocaine.
"We will be winning this war the minute that the Sierra Club or Greenpeace makes this an issue that the world can understand," he said.

Burkle Center for International Relations