The Other Drug War: (Drug
Production and the Environment)
John P. Walters, Director of the Office of National Drug
April 22, 2002
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
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
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
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
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.