Peru: Narcotics Trade Harms the Amazon Region

By Dialogo
September 07, 2011

The Peruvian Government is determined to reduce the damage caused by drug traffickers to the ecosystem of the Amazon region.

According to a study conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA), 5.8 million hectares were deforested between 2000 and 2005.

Brazil lost the largest land area during this period, since 68 million hectares of jungle were eradicated, representing 79.5 percent of the total deforested area. In Peru, the deforestation figure amounted to 8.2 percent, followed by Bolivia (5.3 percent) and Colombia (3.4 percent).

“Of the 20 million hectares of deforested land in Peru, 3 million have been lost due to the cultivation of coca used for illegal purposes,” affirmed Hugo Cabieses Cuba, the deputy minister for strategic development of natural resources at the Peruvian Environment Ministry.

In addition to the damage caused by drug traffickers, there are other harmful activities that affect the Amazon region’s fragile ecosystem, such as illegal logging, informal mining, and changes in land use for agriculture, according to the Environment Ministry.

Cabieses said that one million hectares have been lost as a result of illegal logging and informal mining.

“[For its part], changing the way in which Amazonian land is used for agriculture is a process of occupying territory that modifies the [natural] Amazonian vegetation, without respecting its physical, chemical, and ecological characteristics,” he affirmed.

Jaime Antezana, an analyst who studies drug trafficking, said that there is an alliance between the illegal loggers and the drug traffickers who exploit the Amazon.

“[The criminals] hire people who know the area well to go into the jungle and grow coca, and even dig soaking pools,” he affirmed.

Cabieses added that trees are often cut down and turned over to timber smugglers. Once the land has been cleared, the traffickers plant coca. Coca leaves, the fundamental ingredient used in the production of cocaine, are sold at a going rate of 11 kilograms for 60 dollars.

“[We estimate] that large amounts of chemical waste, such as kerosene, sulfuric acid, and acetone, are dumped into rivers and lakes each year,” indicated José Álvarez Alonso, a biologist with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana).

Álvarez said that drug production in soaking pools contributes to soil erosion, river obstruction, and water shortages.

So far in 2011, the Peruvian anti-drug police have succeeded in destroying 1,693 soaking pools, as well as 865,054 pounds of chemical products, in the Andean and Amazon regions.

“All this is affecting the local communities, who eat the fish that live in the rivers where these products are dumped,” Álvarez said. “The drug traffickers try to increase production by using large amounts of agricultural chemicals, and this is deadly for the native fauna.”

José Álvarez Alonso, a specialist with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute, noted that the drug traffickers are causing various difficulties in their communities. “The impact is on the environment, and it’s both economic and social.”

The harm is even greater if it is taken into consideration that only 46 percent of the Amazonian population has access to potable water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP warns that water intended for human consumption is contaminated, because 70 percent of the solid waste is found on the surface, making it impossible to control the release of toxic gases and liquids.

Head-on Strategy against Drug Trafficking

In Peru, there are nearly 60 natural areas in the Amazon where the use of existing resources for non-scientific purposes is prohibited.

Drug traffickers have taken over 6,259 hectares in at least 16 of these reserves, according to the Environment Ministry.

“The Environment Ministry’s strategy will be to involve the communities and people who live near the protected areas, in order to be able to round up 32,000 volunteers for these forests and parks,” Cabieses indicated.

A natural reserve may have an area larger than 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres), as in the case of Manu National Park, declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Antezana said that local governments and mayors will work jointly with the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Protected Areas Service (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas), and the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida) to prevent drug traffickers and other illegal enterprises from occupying land throughout the region.

“We want to increase the protected areas from 20 million to 30 million hectares,” he concluded.