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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Growing Coca in the Rainforest

Air Date: Week of

The United States is working hard with the Peruvian government to stop coca plant growth in the jungles of Peru. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on the impact of these efforts. Among the results, peasants are burning and cultivating increasing acres of remote rainforest to elude detection. Some would like to help solve this problem of land encroachment by creating a legal coca market for the plant's medicinal properties.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, and this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. Cocaine. A hundred years ago it was a common ingredient of patent medicines used to cure headaches, toothaches, in fact just about any illness you could name. Now it evokes images of ruthless drug cartels and decaying inner cities, children on crack and violent death in the streets. But cocaine has other harmful effects that North Americans don't usually see, in the remote regions of South America. There the raw material for the drug is extracted from the leaf of the coca plant, a process which is destroying large tracts of Amazon rainforest. Some Peruvians say an all-out war on coca farmers won't stop the ecological damage, but legalizing coca very well might.

Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explains.

(Birdcalls in the rainforest. A man speaks Spanish. Translator: "This is the coca leaf plant. You begin the harvest like this. Just pull off the leaves like this." Sound of leaves being pulled.)

CARTY: The coca plant looks like just an ordinary shrub, about chest high on Jose as he strips its branches bare. Behind Jose, a jungle-covered mountainside slopes down to the Huallaga River, a tributary of the Amazon. Here in the highlands of Peru, peasants like Jose grow two thirds of the world's coca. Jose does not use his real name. He knows he's on the first rung of the international cocaine trade. Jose says he grows coca because it's the only thing between survival and abject poverty, and survival comes before the environment.

JOSE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: What you do first is you go into the jungle so people can't see the coca, and the police can't get in. Then you cut all the underbrush. You let it dry for about 3 weeks. Then you cut down the big trees and you let them dry out. And then you do the burning.

CARTY: And the burning to clear the land has taken its toll. Forest experts say that since large scale cocaine trade began in the 1970s, 15 million acres of jungle have been lost. These are only estimates. The Shining Path guerrillas and the army's counter-insurgency warfare make it impossible to really know how much damage has been done. But Alejandro Camino has seen it with his own eyes. Alejandro Camino is the head of the Trust Fund for Parks and Protected Areas, a Peruvian organization supported by the United Nations.

CAMINO: As an anthropologist, I used to work in some areas of the Peruvian rainforest, in the eastern slopes of the Andes. Now the areas are planted with coca for the drug trafficking, and this is true for many valleys. The destruction of biological diversity of the forest is cut. But also you have soil destruction, no jungle left.

(A helicopter flies overhead)

CARTY: Coca cultivation does not go uncontested, however. Almost daily, American helicopters fly up and down the Huallaga River valley. They are part of Washington's drug war, a $25 million a year effort to help Peru destroy coca plants. US diplomat Sherman Henson runs the program out of the embassy in Lima, and from there he directs the helicopter squadron.

HENSON: They support activities of the Peruvian government interior ministry agency that manually eradicates. They chop up with machetes the seedbeds from which new coca plants come. The end result has to be the elimination of the plant.

(Bird calls in the jungle)

CARTY: Now, given the damage caused by coca cultivation, you might think this steely resolve to wipe out coca plants would make ecologists happy. Not so. Eradication efforts have just made things worse, according to Alejandro Camino.

CAMINO: The actions against the growers have made the growers move further and further into the forest, and cut more and more forest. And areas which were formally grown with coca, due to repression on the cultivation, have been abandoned and the coca wars have moved into more and more remote areas. So now you have coca being grown in the lowland rainforest.

CARTY: Despite all the efforts to eradicate coca, there is 4 times more land under cultivation today than a decade ago, and the war against drugs has had another effect. Because of police raids against the cartels of Colombia, the drug lords have moved part of their cocaine processing right here to the jungles of Peru. These operations use tons of chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, kerosene, gasoline, acetone, ether, something called methylethylketone if that's how you say it. And Alejandro Camino says sometimes they even use a bit of cement.

CAMINO: And once the processing is done, the chemicals are thrown right on the side so this is another environmental impact of the coca, illegal coca trade. There are rivers where there is no more fish. There's no more wildlife in the river. The river has been extremely polluted.

CARTY: So for ecologists, the problem is twofold. Drug related demand for coca leads to rainforest destruction. But attempts to wipe out the plant exacerbate the damage. What then to be done? Many Peruvians insist the solution begins in recognizing that the coca plant itself is not the problem.

(Singers sing about coca.)

CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The coca leaf is 5,000 years old. It's part of our customs. It plays the same role as coffee for North Americans or tea for the English or wine for the French.

CARTY: Hugo Cabieses is an economist and one of many scientists, government officials, and even musicians who are trying to change coca's image. Coca, they insist, is not the same as cocaine hydrochloride, the illicit drug. The coca leaf contains less than one percent of the ingredient which is processed into the narcotic. And by itself it's not addictive. Eight million people in the Andes regularly chew coca leaves or drink coca tea.

CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Coca has always been fundamental in religious rituals, but it also has medicinal properties. It improves blood circulation. It combats the effect of altitude, of the cold, and of fatigue. It's very good for digestion. It prevents diarrhea. It has many uses. It's known as mama coca and also the sacred leaf.

CARTY: Hugo Cabieses argues that ironic as it may seem, the coca leaf could be a weapon in the fight against both the cocaine trade and environmental destruction. The idea is that poor peasants can be weaned off illegal coca cultivation if there are profitable alternatives. Throughout Peru there are attempts to help peasants produce citrus fruits, tea, and organic cotton. Hugo Cabieses says let them also grow coca. Legally.

CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: If we marketed the benefits of coca for humanity, if we made products like coca tea or coca toothpaste or coca pills, it would be much more profitable for farmers to produce coca for this legal market rather than for the illegal market. So farmers would not have to get involved with narco traffickers in order to survive.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: Ecologist Alejandro Camino agrees that the idea has merit. That the marketing of coca leaves as a mild stimulant or a health product could help get a good number of farmers out of the drug trade. And it would have an environmental dividend.

CAMINO: If you look at the traditional coca field, usually the coca is planted on very well-done furrows. The soil is prepared in such a way that when it rains, the soil won't be washed away. Also, the use of pesticides, you never use pesticides on a traditional coca plantation used for traditional chewing. But if you grow it illegally, you're not going to put a lot of effort on protecting your soil; you just grow your crop, take out the harvest as fast as you can, and run away.

CARTY: The idea of marketing legal coca leaves faces major hurdles. The leaf itself is on a UN list of restricted substances not to be traded internationally. Coca supporters say that's unfair, like blaming grapes for the effect of wine. Peru and Bolivia are lobbying to get the leaf legalized. And North American scientists are investigating its medicinal properties. But Washington strongly opposes legalizing the leaf. US Diplomat Sherman Hinson.

HINSON: You can't treat coca quite as benignly as some of its advocates would want. The fact is, if there is demand for the drug, people will process the leaf to produce the drug. Total production of any agro-industrial product basically increases to satisfy the demand for that product. There's no reason to expect the coca industry, even though it's illegal to behave any differently and observed evidence suggests that it doesn't.

CARTY: Coca supporters counter that if demand is the main problem, then Washington should be putting more effort at curbing cocaine use at home than on stamping out the coca plant in the highlands of Peru. Ecologists here agree that a legal coca industry will not solve the cocaine problem. But the continuing campaign to eradicate the plant will only lead to more rainforest destruction. So, they say, why not give the coca plant and a cup of coca tea a chance? For Living on Earth I'm Bob Carty in Peru.



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