Crop cultivation and the chemicals used to produce drugs have a direct impact on the hemisphere’s flora, soils, fauna, and rivers. Countries like Colombia and Peru are rapidly losing their natural resources and ecosystems due to narcotrafficking, which clears forests to grow marijuana, as well as coca to produce cocaine and poppy for heroin.
Toxic waste from chemicals used to extract narcotics lacks proper management and is discarded into bodies of water, polluting groundwater resources and killing thousands of species.
The Colombian National Police’s (PNC, in Spanish) report Coca: Deforestation, Pollution, and Poverty indicates that “drug production destroys an average of 40,531 hectares of forest annually in the country, about 111 hectares per day, where 80 percent of the reported tree species only exist in that biome.” Deforestation also entails destroying the habitat of endemic species that are unable to migrate. “In terms of fauna, the figures are: 600 birds, 170 reptiles, 100 amphibians, and more than 600 fish species,” the report says.
According to the report Colombia – Survey of Territories Affected by Illicit Crops 2018 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “47 percent of [drug] crops are located in national natural parks, indigenous reserves, or black communities […].” The total area damaged by coca crops exceeds 225,000 hectares, the PNC adds.
Germán Márquez, professor at the National University of Colombia and researcher at the Institute of Environmental Studies, told Diálogo that the country is among the most affected by logging due to drug production. “Deforestation has been the most direct impact since marijuana crops began in the 1960s and 1970s, and then coca leaf, and to some extent the occupation of many forest areas,” added Marquez.
Eliseo Talancha, head of the Peruvian Institute of Environmental Law and Cultural Heritage, told Diálogo that his country is experiencing similar damage to that of Colombia, especially in the Amazon area.
“Narcotrafficking is a local and regional environmental problem, mainly located [in the country] in the Peruvian Amazon, in the high and low jungles. It affects resources such as water, and the use of pesticides and chemicals leads to soil erosion,” Talancha added. “Cocaine base paste production causes serious damage in terms of river pollution and loss of fauna.”
“We can summarize the main effects as such: interference in strategic ecosystems; thinning of vegetation coverage; extinction of endemic species; reduction of natural areas; deterioration of water sources and decreased capacity to regulate them; decline in water quality due to physical, chemical, or biological degradation; rain cycle alterations; and increased carbon dioxide,” the PNC report says.
Some of the chemicals released into the region’s rivers due to cocaine production are kerosene, sulfuric acid, quicklime, carbide, acetone, and toluene, experts say. The production of 1 kilogram of coca base paste requires about 400 to 600 grams of chemicals, which are directly deposited into the region’s water sources.
Other drug processing practices that are harmful for ecosystems, the PNC says, are open-air waste accumulation and incineration, as well as river pollution.
“Many garbage dumps potentially generate dioxins, furans, and tar, which in some cases have higher toxicity levels than the initial substance [due to decomposition]. The accumulation of open-air and untreated waste generates leachates [toxic waste liquids] that pollute the soil. Waste enters the environment in high concentrations and ends up in bodies of water, merged with soil particles and, in the worst-case scenario, is accumulated and magnified. At this point, the pressure on the habitat is not limited to the crop area alone, but gets exported to the entire ecosystem,” the PNC emphasizes in the report.