New target in Colombia’s drug war: ecofriendly US users

The Shared Responsibility program aims to educate US and European cocaine users about the environmental damage of cocaine production.

Crusader: Ana Maria Caballero works for Colombia’s Shared Responsibility program.
Murray Carpenter
Crusader: Ana Maria Caballero works for Colombia’s Shared Responsibility program.

Millions of Americans use cocaine, but few of them consider the millions of acres of forest that have been cleared by coca growers in all corners of Colombia or the blue-billed curassow, a turkey-sized bird that is losing habitat to coca farming.

Ana Maria Caballero believes that many recreational cocaine users are well-educated professionals who also recycle, drive hybrid vehicles, and buy fair-trade products, but that they just don’t understand what cocaine is doing to Colombia’s environment.

Ms. Caballero works for Shared Responsibility, the Colombian government’s effort to raise consumer awareness of cocaine’s impact on one of the world’s most biodiverse nations. The project is led by Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón, who has more than a passing interest in narco-traficking – he was once kidnapped and held for months by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.

Colombia’s decades-old, drug-funded, armed conflict is complicated, says Caballero, but environmental devastation is apolitical. “When you talk about deforestation, when you talk about a specific species being threatened because coca is encroaching upon its sole habitat, there’s no political argument there,” she says. “It’s absolutely black and white. You are destroying natural treasures that belong to the world.”

According to Shared Responsibility, 43 square feet of forest are cleared to produce one gram of cocaine, and coca growers have cleared an area the size of New Jersey – nearly five million acres – within Colombia over the past 20 years.

Clandestine cocaine laboratories, which use an array of toxic chemicals, pollute once-pristine waters in remote areas. And slash-and-burn clearing for coca farms is one of the country’s largest sources of air pollution. The clearing also accelerates global climate change, which is shrinking Colombia’s mountaintop glaciers.

Now coca farmers are moving further south and west, into remote areas in the upper Amazon basin and along the border with Ecuador that are havens for many rare plants and animals.
Shared Responsibility and the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime have produced a series of maps labeled “Incidence of Illicit Crops in the Habitats of Endemic Species in Danger of Extinction” that illustrate the problem. Four critically endangered magnolia species, for example, are native only to southwestern Colombia, where coca growers are clearing thousands of acres of land.

Colombia has more bird species than any other country, 1,870 at last count. But rare endemic birds – such as the gorgeted puffleg, a hummingbird discovered just three years ago in southwest Colombia – are losing habitat within their limited ranges to coca cultivation.

Alonso Quevedo, president of the Colombian bird conservation group ProAves, says that in addition to deforestation, there are secondary effects. The coca farmers open previously wild, forested areas to settlement, and others follow to hunt and log.

Shared Responsibility took its photographic exhibit to London’s Trafalgar Square in May and Alex James, bassist for the British band Blur, is a high-profile spokesman in England. But it has not yet made a splash in the United States, which consumes the vast majority of Colombian cocaine.

According to a US Embassy official in Bogotá, the United States is the top cocaine consumer in the world, and Colombia produces 90 percent of that cocaine, likely 600 tons annually. Despite aggressive US-funded eradication efforts, coca fields remain abundant. A recent United Nations report estimated that 250,000 acres of Colombian coca fields were harvested in 2007; US estimates are considerably higher.

Will the Shared Responsibility message actually change the behavior of the estimated six million Americans who use cocaine?

“It’s probably not something that would influence me,” says one environmentally minded, occasional cocaine user who did not want her name used. She says she would rather see a more holistic approach to addressing drugs in society. And she says there are some times when she wants to turn her environmental filter off. “We all have our vices,” she says, “and you don’t want to think about this.”

But Caballero believes increased awareness can cut cocaine use, and she’d like to make connections with governments, universities, and environmental organizations in the United States and elsewhere. “It’s an international problem,” Caballero says. “People don’t understand where their drugs are coming from and that they are feeding this entire process that is not only socially destructive, but very environmentally destructive.”

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