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The Other Drug War: (Drug Production and the Environment)

John P. Walters, Director of the Office of National Drug Policy
The Oregonian

April 22, 2002

We know that illegal drugs do a great deal of harm -- to our bodies, our minds, and our communities. But there's another harm associated with illegal drugs: The billions of dollars Americans spend on drugs each year take a horrific toll on some of the most fragile and diverse ecosystems on the planet.

Consider the Andes and Amazonian regions of outh America. In countries such as Colombia and Peru, astonishing environmental riches abound. The Huallaga region of Peru may be the world's richest in all forms of fauna, hosting record numbers of species among butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Colombia contains roughly 10 percent of the Earth's biodiversity, second only to Brazil.

But that diversity is rapidly being destroyed. Environmental journalist Stephanie Joyce, reporting in International Wildlife, described what she saw in the Andean region: "a devastated landscape . . . an accordion of scarred red hillsides dotted with rotting tree stumps. The forest has disappeared as far as the eye can see."

Who cut down the forest, wiped out the fragile wildlife, depleted the soil and left behind a chemically poisoned scar that had once been rain forest? It's a tragic story of greed and dependency. But the culprit here isn't a rapacious corporation. It's our demand for illegal drugs.

It is time we look at the real, far-reaching consequences of our drug use and the damage we are doing to ourselves and to our world.

The nations and our own government have tried to curtail cocaine production by spraying coca fields with glyphosate, the chemical compound that has been used safely by millions of Americans for years. But our spraying is not the engine driving all this environmental destruction; it's the growing and processing of cocaine itself. Illegal drug manufacturers, obviously, follow no environmental or safety rules.

U.S. residents consume nearly 260 metric tons of cocaine every year, grown and chemically processed in the fragile environments of South America. The pattern of coca growing depends on the use of highly destructive "slash and burn" agriculture. Forests are burned, coca planted and when fields become sterile, new fields are cleared deeper in the forest. The illicit coca crop is produced mainly by large-scale industrial growers who, in their quest for profits, cause severe environmental damage in virgin growing areas. The result has been the destruction of 2.4 million hectares of fragile tropical forest in the Andean region over the last 20 years. In Peru, 10 percent of the total rain forest destruction in the last century is due to illegal drugs.

In addition, the powerful chemical agents applied by the growers further ruin the soil. It is estimated that 600 million liters of so-called precursor chemicals are used annually in South America for cocaine production. To increase yields, coca growers use highly poisonous herbicides and pesticides, including paraquat. Processors also indiscriminately discard enormous amounts of gasoline, kerosene, sulfuric acid, ammonia, sodium bicarbonate, potassium carbonate, acetone, ether, and lime onto the ground and into nearby waterways.

The National Agrarian University of Peru reports that "the rivers and streams of the Upper Huallaga Valley are literally flooded, year after year, with vast quantities of toxic waste and pollution. Fisheries and all forms of life are almost totally destroyed in the small streams."

The coca trade has been especially damaging in Colombia, which has lost roughly 3 million acres of tropical rain forest. Every year processors dump over 370,000 tons of chemicals into the environment with jungle laboratories sending more than 20 million litres of toxins into the nearby tributaries that feed the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. Affected waterways are almost entirely devoid of many species of aquatic plant and animal life.

There is a compelling human toll as well. Poor campesinos spray the fields accompanied by their children, who walk around barefoot. Their wives, many of them nursing mothers, will clean out the spraying equipment, exposing themselves to these highly toxic chemicals.

Cocaine from distant nations is not our only problem. Methamphetamine labs here at home leave poisonous scars, draining the environmental clean-up budgets of many municipalities. Each pound of meth production generates five or six pounds of hazardous waste. Deadly laboratory by-products are sometimes dumped directly into water wells, spreading into domestic water and farm irrigation systems.

Americans consumer a huge portion of the earth's resources. But Americans also are an idealistic people. Today, Earth Day, we celebrate that idealism by focusing on our role as environmental stewards.

People can be educated to care about the consequences of their habits and become more sensitive to their impact on the planet. Reducing the demand for illegal drugs is one way we can ease the pressure on some of our most fragile natural habitats.

John P. Walters is director of National Drug Control Policy.