Myth 4: Coca and the Environment

cocasprayingCoca cultivation is devastating the rainforest / Coca is an ideal crop for poor soils in the tropics and will be cultivated everywhere once declared legal

Since at least the 1980s, there has been a consistent effort to link the growing of coca with widespread environmental degradation, baptized recently by the Colombian government as “ecocide”. Others state that "coca is an ideal crop for poor soils in the tropics".

In terms of deforestation of actual primary rainforest, the impact of coca farming has been deliberately exaggerated, with the clear objective of gaining political support for eradication campaigns. Coca is rarely planted in areas of virgin woodland, since this demands a great deal of effort to clear, and leaves stumps and fallen tree-trunks which make harvesting of coca leaves impractical and highly labour intensive. Deforestation figures, not surprisingly, have never been analysed in terms of exactly what type of vegetation has been cleared to plant coca. Coca agriculture is also best organized in individual family units, rather than in large plantations, and this has the effect of dispersing the plots in small fields, which rarely exceed one hectare.

Furthermore, the point needs to be made, and repeated, that coca eradication campaigns have greatly compounded what could have been a relatively containable phenomenon, forcing coca farmers to relocate, clear new areas, and engage in increasingly predatory agricultural practices.

Both manual eradication and aerial glyphosate spraying have the effect of further displacing coca producers and their crops, leading to the clearing and colonization and clearing of new areas. Forced eradication also has the consequence of making agricultural practices more predatory; since quicker yields must be ensured before the eradicators intervene. This leads to excessive stocking of the coca fields, soil depletion, and the need to employ ever-increasing quantities of industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Dlyphosate spraying - the backbone of Plan Colombia - has involved the added environmental cost of destroying all the flora surrounding areas of coca production, as well as a series of knock-on effects on human health.

On the other hand, in order to counter the “ecocide”, the Colombian government – generously funded by US, UN and EU bureaucracies – has engaged in alternative development projects whose consequences, in both social and environmental terms, appear considerably more alarming than the problem they were supposedly designed to solve. In some regions of Colombia, the expansion of mega plantations - like palm oil - has been achieved by means of the violent expulsion of independent coca farmers, a pattern repeated in many other areas of the country. Such policies have produced unimaginable levels of hardship and violence, as well as internal displacement, social “cleansing”, political fragmentation, and land counter-reform.

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Further reading: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers 17, June 2009