|Amazonia: Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and Its People (UNU, 1995, 253 pages)|
|2. Environmental threats|
All the world's cocaine is produced from coca plantations on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The seemingly endless appetite for recreational drugs in industrial countries, and increasingly in developing nations, has spurred coca plantings in areas formerly in forest or planted to food crops. A crop once grown for local consumption has become so profitable that it is now much more widely grown than in the past. Traditionally, coca has been used in two forms: a mild stimulant by chewing the leaves or making tea; and as a snuff in rituals by certain indigenous groups of western Amazonia. Now large quantities of coca leaves are processed to concentrate cocaine. Coca cultivation is consequently spreading further into the Amazon lowlands, including Brazil.
Three latent environmental problems may surface because of the cocaine business: deforestation, coca eradication, and the dumping of chemicals used to process coca leaves into paste. Given the secrecy and peril involved in investigating the coca industry, information on such negative environmental impacts will be difficult to obtain. Presumably, they will have mainly local or regional impacts.
Reliable data on planting rates and the cultivated area in coca are understandably hard to gather. More than 700,000 ha of montane forest have apparently been cut in Peru to grow and process coca (Goodman 1993). More tropical forest in Amazonia has surely fallen at the hands of small farmers to grow coca than has been cleared by miners, both corporate and itinerant. The Andean portion of the Amazon basin is especially rich in biodiversity; it would be ironic if some individuals who partake of cocaine also buy albums and "rainforest" products that purportedly support "sustainable" use of tropical forests. Discussion about using defoliants, such as Spike, to eradicate coca plantations has elicited some concern, particularly from environmentalists and ecologists concerned about the impact of herbicides on non-target plants. Biocontrol efforts may prove more effective, provided they do not attack other plant species. On the other hand, coca bushes may do a better job of securing soil on steep Andean slopes than most food crops. While the international market for cocaine remains strong, farmers will find a way to continue planting a crop that produces a handsome profit.
Poppy fields are sprouting now in the Andes, in response to a resurgent demand for opium and a desire by drug cartels to diversify their product lines. Poppy fields cover at least 20,000 ha in the Colombian Andes (Goodman 1993), and cultivation may spread south into the Amazon basin. This introduced annual does not secure soils well on steep slopes. In discussions about the need for people in developed countries to reconcile their lifestyles with the planet and biodiversity, little attention has been paid to the hedonistic use of drugs. Efforts should be redoubled to educate people about the folly of taking recreational drugs in industrial countries, rather than try and blame coca growers in western Amazonia.
One of the most serious environmental issues associated with coca in Amazonia is the nature and quantity of chemicals used to process coca leaves. In 1986, Peru exported an estimated 6,400 tons of coca paste. Such big quantities would have involved the use of 32 million litres of sulphuric acid, 16,000 tons of quicklime, and 6.5 million tons of acetone.6 In the Upper Huallaga valley alone, coca processors annually dump an estimated 56 million litres of kerosene, 8 million tons of sulphuric acid, and large quantities of acetone, toluene, and carbide (FAO 1990: 12). Coca is also processed in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Most of these chemicals and compounds probably found their way into streams and the groundwater in various parts of western Amazonia. If these chemicals are not eliminating fish populations, they may render them unsafe to eat. Such compounds may also trigger mutations in at least some of the fish species important for subsistence and commerce.
The threat of coca-processing chemicals may be diminishing, at least in some areas. In Colombia, for example, coca refiners have recently begun recycling chemicals, rather than ditching them in streams. Such measures do not reflect a concern for the environment; rather they are an effort to circumvent restrictions on the importation or production of precursor chemicals used in processing coca paste.