Colombia Fights Environmental Damage of Drug Trade
By Dialogo December 28, 2010
At several recent gatherings, scientists have demonstrated that the global
drug problem ─ in particular drug processing and manufacturing ─ is damaging the
flora and fauna of some of the world’s most environmentally sensitive areas.
Colombia is one of the countries most affected by the drug trade, but it also
treasures its biodiversity more than almost any other country in the world,
Colombian military officials said.
“An essential element of this war is our common and shared responsibilities,
which means that we must focus our attention on the link in the production chain
where the impact will be the greatest, whether that is the production, trafficking
or use of the drugs,” said a source at the Ministry of Defense.
“In order to deal with this problem, we must have clearly defined
comprehensive and balanced strategies that attack each and every part of this
phenomenon, and put a stop to its adverse impact on the environment,” said the
source, who asked to remain anonymous.
To that end, the government of Colombia “has sponsored specific initiatives
on this subject, and seeks to show the rest of the world the negative effects that
drugs have on the environment and on our nation’s communities where these drugs are
grown,” the source said.
“Online and print pamphlets, photo exhibits, and children’s ad campaigns have
been developed to raise the target audience’s awareness about the impact drug use
has on the environment, and about the damage suffered by the communities located in
the production areas,” the source at the Ministry of Defense said.
The Colombian government is also taking the message to the region’s political
At the 12th Summit of the Tuxtla Mechanism for Dialogue and Cooperation held
Oct. 24-26 at Cartagena de Indias, President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón called for
“a consistent response in the war on drugs and the war against climate change.”
In addition to Colombia’s leader, the gathering included heads of state and
government officials from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras,
Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Luis Alberto Moreno
attended the meeting, along with other representatives of international
organizations. Created in 1991, the Tuxtla Mechanism holds annual summits that
address political, economic, trade, and other issues.
The damage caused by illegal crops is “frighteningly large, because one
hectare of illicit crops can destroy three hectares of rain forest in Colombia, for
example,” an official at Colombia’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs, Housing and
Development said. “Additionally, the raw chemical materials that are used in
processing cocaine hydrochloride destroy indigenous plant cover, ecological niches,
and food chains, the microflora and microfauna, and they dramatically alter the rain
and climate patterns.”
Cocaine hydrochloride is a fine, crystalline powder similar in appearance to
According to estimates by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime
(UNODC), “one hectare yields enough cocaine to produce 4,600 grams of cocaine
hydrochloride. This means that in order to produce one gram of cocaine
hydrochloride, drug traffickers destroy approximately 6.5 square meters (70 square
feet) of forest area.”
An official with the Ministry of Environmental Affairs emphasized, however,
that “the impact of illicit crops on the environment cannot be measured only in
terms of how many hectares or square kilometers are affected.”
“Processing drugs like cocaine and heroin has a significant impact on the
environment, that is, both coca and poppies are heavily cultivated in a process that
involves deforestation, planting the crops and the use of pesticides against weeds,
insects and disease causing organisms,” said the official, who did not want to be
named in the article.
The same source said that “all of these activities can have a considerable
adverse effect on human health and the environment, as well as a significant impact
on biodiversity, similar to the impact caused by deforestation.”
“Although the total surface area of the land used for these activities is
relatively small, a high portion of the illicit crop cultivation and drug production
occurs in remote areas that are close by or part of critical biodiversity areas,
such as the Andean zone,” the source said.
Colombian officials defended the practice of crop dusting to destroy illegal
“At this time, the likelihood of accidentally crop dusting unintended sites
is low, since we estimate that this only happens in 1% of the eradication efforts,”
said an official at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs.
“Specifically, the glysophate used in eradication programs is stationary in
the environment, and it quickly becomes strongly fixed when it comes into contact
with soil and aquatic sediments,” the official said. “It is also biologically active
for only a short time in the soil and the water, and does not become biomagnified.
It does not move through the food chain and does not filter down the underground
Scientifically speaking, according to experts at the Ministry of
Environmental Affairs, “land where coca is cultivated has a tendency towards erosion
because perennial plants are not as effective as a rain forest in absorbing water
and keeping soil in place.
“In addition, the tree canopy lessens the impact of raindrops that would
otherwise remove particulates from the soil, which would increase the probability of
erosion,” said the official at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs.
“The practice of repeatedly planting in such fragile soil could quickly lead
to deterioration in the environment and depletion of natural resources, especially
soil erosion and the loss of topsoil and sediment downstream,” the Ministry official
“The very process of refining coca leaves into cocaine causes serious
environmental damage due to irresponsible disposal of the toxic chemicals that are
used in the process,” officials at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs said in a
written statement. “The disposal of chemicals used in cultivating and manufacturing
narcotics also has devastating effects on rain forest ecosystems.”
“Usually, when drug manufacturers dispose of toxic waste, they
indiscriminately dump it into the nearest stream of water, where the damage
increases significantly,” the official at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs told
Likewise, “they dump these chemicals on the soil, and the chemicals can then
filter through to underground water. Substances used to excess in the fields can
also be washed away by the rain to the local water basin,” the official said.
Fixing the mess
It’s not going to be easy or quick to fix the damage caused by illicit drug
production in Colombia’s forests and jungles.
“Because their actions involve indiscriminate use of pesticides, fertilizers
and corrective measures by those cultivating the crops, these actions alter the
physiochemical properties of the soil. On top of that, we must consider the practice
of burning rain forest to gain land for crops, and reductions in the flora and
microfauna in the soil such as symbiotic bacteria, larvae, etc. Based on this, we
can say that it takes a very long time to recover from and repair the damages caused
by these processes,” the environmental official said.
“In addition,” the expert continued, “the soil is a source of nutrients and
as such it is intimately related to the vegetation. Therefore, there will be similar
delays, possibly for years, in recovery for the vegetation and later, successive
processes if we do not take action to restore the ecological balance and speed up
the recovery in the affected areas.”
In a report on the impact of drug chemicals in the environment, the Ministry
of Environment listed four major concerns:
1. Toxicity, because the effects of the compounds on humans and mammals can
range from allergies to acute pain to death.
2. Bioaccumulation, because many pesticides that are used in cultivating
illicit crops can accumulate in one type of tissue or another. Lymphophilic
pesticides remain in fishes’ fatty tissues, while other pesticides are digested and
excreted as waste.
3. Affinity, because the compounds may be attracted to the solid materials in
the soil, to the liquids in bodies of water, or they may be volatile.
4. Lastly we have persistence, because a compound may biodegrade in just a
few months or it may take years. Most modern pesticides have a half life as long as
the amount of time it takes to control the pests.
The Ministry of Environmental Affairs added, in conclusion, that “the most
difficult type of damage to repair is the ecological imbalance created by
contamination in different ecosystems.”
“Furthermore, the emissions from refineries used to process the illicit crops
increase the concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouses gases in the
atmosphere…Consequently, we have identified deforestation, burning of forests, and
displacement of natural flora and fauna as the greatest environmental dangers caused
by the presence of illicit crops.”