The economic and social costs of the US’s failed War on Drugs are well known. Violence is endemic in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries at the war’s epicenter, while drug-related corruption is now a global phenomenon involving the highest official levels in every nation touched by the drug trade. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are dependent on the drug trade for their livelihood, and are helping to supply the many unfortunate individuals hooked on a wide variety of drugs being marketed to meet the huge demand.
What isn’t as well known is the impact the US crusade to stamp out the drug trade is having on the environment. It’s true that part of the problem can be blamed on the nature of illegal drug cultivation and manufacturing. Coca, marijuana, and opium poppy cultivation have replaced native vegetation in areas covering hundreds of thousands of acres that are often in vulnerable areas such as species-rich rainforests and erosion-prone cloud forests.
Environmental damage results from the way those crops are cultivated and harvested. Large amounts of pesticides, fungicides, and toxic chemicals are required, and they end up being washed or dumped into rivers. Coca cultivation has been blamed for the deforestation of at least 700,000 acres of land in the Amazon region of the Andes (an area almost 40 percent larger than the state of Delaware), as well as the killing of wildlife and the disappearance of several fish species.
While the US government loudly blames drug traffickers and farmers for the growing environmental damage, the reality is that Uncle Sam’s misguided anti-drug policy is once again largely responsible for creating another casualty of war.
Since the mid-1980s, the US government has insisted on chemical fumigation as a cornerstone of its policy to destroy illegal drug crops, and forced producer countries to follow the party line. Colombia, for example, was under intense pressure during the 1990s to allow the use of fumigation planes to drop chemicals on coca and poppy fields in the country’s eastern savannas and jungles, a major area of drug crop cultivation.
"Sixty percent of all the drugs that enter the US start or pass through Colombia," said US drug czar Barry McCaffrey in defending the fumigation policy. "There has to be a continued willingness to confront this threat to the hemisphere, and aerial eradication has to be part of it."
But environmental groups, the Colombian government, and even chemical companies have questioned the wisdom of using powerful chemicals, such as herbicides, to eradicate drug crops. In 1998, the Colombian government gave in to US pressure once again, announcing it had agreed to test tebuthiuron, a powerful herbicide commercially known as Round Up, that is commonly used to kill weeds in limited areas, far from crops and habitation.
The decision was made, even though the US Environmental Protection Agency requires a warning label on the chemical, saying it can contaminate ground water, and despite the public admonition of Dow Agrosciences, tebuthiuron’s manufacturer, against its use in Colombia. Specifically, the manufacturer cautioned against applying it too close to trees or sources of water, where its impact could spread and damage surrounding vegetation.
The Colombian office of the World Wildlife Fund released a statement that said, "Based on scientific literature, tebuthiuron can cause extensive damage to fauna and flora and to human beings, if it is not used in the correct way and according to the product’s intended use."
Surely, the US government must know a serious problem exists when a chemical manufacturer becomes a strong ally of environmental groups on an issue. The truth is the US has been aware of the environmental concerns about fumigation for at least a decade.
In 1988, Ely Lilly was the manufacturer of tebuthiuron and sold it under the brand name Spike. On June 1 of that year, the US assistant Secretary of State for international narcotics matters testified before a House Government Operations subcommittee that Ely Lilly had refused to participate in testing tebuthiuron on coca crops in Peru. The company knew that the herbicide would destroy all vegetation with which it came into contact, and was worried about being subject to liability lawsuits for long-term environmental damage.
Given the questionable effectiveness of chemical herbicides and the controversy surrounding them, the US and its allies have been investigating the use of biological herbicides, genetically engineered from actual fungi, as a viable tool in international drug control efforts. Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination, the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) 1999 report, revealed the existence of a research program in Uzbekistan that would develop a biological agent to destroy the opium poppy. The UNDCP initiated the program in February 1998 when it signed a $650,000 contract with the Institute of Genetics and Plants Experimental Biology of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan for a three and a half year research program to develop a "reliable biological control agent for opium poppy."
The project has since been criticized for several reasons. Uzbekistan lacks the financial resources and scientific equipment to conduct a useful project, critics charge. They’ve also questioned the environmental safety of biological herbicides, especially since a real possibility exists that the use of genetically engineered fungi could get out of control and lead to unintentional mutation, which could destroy legitimate crops.
Whether fumigation comes in the natural or genetically altered form, there’s no guarantee that it will make a dent in the booming cultivation of illegal drug crops. Colombia is again a prime example. While 1998 was a record year for the number of acres fumigated in that country, it was also a banner year for coca production. According to official sources, the acreage devoted to coca cultivation surged more than 25 percent, making it three times larger than the amount under cultivation in 1994. In fact, Colombia has surpassed Peru and Bolivia as the world’s biggest grower of coca. Moreover, an additional 14,000 acres are being used to grow heroin poppy. In 1994, only 10 of Colombia’s 33 provinces grew coca and poppy; today, the figure is 21.
"To me, fumigation makes no sense," explained the exasperated Armando Borreno, a former Colombian national security official. "It only forces the migration of cultivation."
Increasing the level and intensity of the fumigation program has also forced the drug traffickers to innovate and readjust to "market conditions." Last November, the press reported that the traffickers had hired agronomists to help them develop more potent and resilient varieties of coca. Theoretically, fumigation may mean that less acreage will be under coca and poppy cultivation. But this is being mitigated by the introduction of a more productive variety of coca plant that could be grown six to eight times annually.
And who bears the brunt of the US’s anti-environmental drug policy? The small farmer in Third World drug-producing countries, making them poor allies in the War on Drugs. They complain that fumigation planes often dump chemicals on the legitimate crops they are trying to grow and in areas that could be used for farming. Instead, they’re rendered useless by the concomitant damage. In 1996, angry Colombian farmers fought pitched battles with police in an effort to disrupt eradication efforts.
In its myopia, the US has historically provided little money to help develop alternative programs that could wean farmers away from the drug trade. For nearly two decades, since Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs, the US has been hooked on eradication as a major instrument to combat the problem.
A proposal currently before the US Congress might increase aid and money
targeted for alternative development programs. Unfortunately, recent developments from Washington indicate that the current proposal is going to be the same old song when it comes to dealing with the root causes of the drug problem.
Contributing writer Ron Chepesiuk is based in Rock Hill, SC. His latest book is The War on Drugs: An International Encyclopedia.