Coca eradication is a strategy promoted by the United States government starting in 1961 as part of its "War on Drugs" to eliminate the cultivation of coca, a plant whose leaves are not only traditionally used by indigenous cultures but also, in modern society, in the manufacture of cocaine. The strategy was adopted in place of running educational campaigns against drug usage. The prohibitionist strategy is being pursued in the coca-growing regions of Colombia (Plan Colombia), Peru, and formerly Bolivia, where it is highly controversial because of its environmental, health and socioeconomic impact. Furthermore, indigenous cultures living in the Altiplano, such as the Aymaras, use the coca leaf (which they dub the "millenary leaf") in many of their cultural traditions, notably for its medicinal qualities in alleviating the feeling of hunger, fatigue and headaches symptomatic of altitude sicknesses. The growers of coca are named Cocaleros and part of the coca production for traditional use is legal in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Plots denuded of coca plants by mechanical means (burning or cutting) or chemical herbicides, such as glyphosate, are abandoned and cause serious problems with erosion in seasonal rains. Because of the continuous high demand for coca, once a plot is destroyed the planters simply move further into the forest, clearing new lands for coca production. It is this vicious cycle of unsustainable cultivation-eradication that has caused the environment in coca producing zones to suffer substantial decline.
Aerial spraying of glyphosate herbicide, one of the most controversial methods of coca eradication, has taken place in Colombia exclusively because of that government's willingness to cooperate with the United States in the militarized eradication of coca after signing Plan Colombia in 2000. In many cases the spraying is carried out by American contractors, such as DynCorp, using planes and helicopters to spray glyphosate on coca plantations. Aerial spraying has been repeatedly condemned by human rights and environmental activists because of its effect on human populations and local soil and water systems. In December 2000, Dutch journalist Marjon van Royen found that "because the chemical is sprayed in Colombia from planes on inhabited areas, there have been consistent health complaints [in humans]. Burning eyes, dizziness and respiratory problems being most frequently reported." In some areas, 80 percent of the children of the indigenous community fell sick with skin rashes, fever, diarrhoea and eye infections. Because the glyphosate is sprayed from the air, there is a much higher chance of human error when spraying suspected illegal coca plantations. In many cases the wrong fields are sprayed, resulting in not only a total loss of the farmer's crop- but the loss of that field altogether as nothing will grow where the herbicide has been sprayed. Though official documentation of the health effects of glyphosate spraying in Colombia are virtually non-existent, neighbouring Ecuador has conducted studies to determine the cause of mysterious illnesses amongst people living along the border of Colombia and has since demanded that no aerial sprayings occur within 10 km of the border because of the damages caused to the people, animals and environment in that area.
In addition, the U.S. has also been involved in the development of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum to wipe out coca. In 2000, the Congress of the United States approved use of Fusarium as a biological control agent to kill coca crops in Colombia (and another fungus to kill opium poppies in Afghanistan), but these plans were canceled by then-President Clinton, who was concerned that the unilateral use of a biological agent would be perceived by the rest of the world as biological warfare. The Andean nations have since banned its use throughout the region. (The use of biological agents to kill crops may be illegal under the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975.)
On June 25, 2003, the Superior Administrative Court of the Colombian department of Cundinamarca ordered a stop to the spraying of glyphosate herbicides until the government complies with the environmental management plan for the eradication program. It also mandated a series of studies to protect public health and the environment. The Colombian State Council, the country's maximum administrative authority, later overruled the court's decision to stop fumigations.
In the sierra of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina, coca has been consumed (by chewing and brewing in infusion) for thousands of years as a stimulant and cure for altitude sickness; it also has symbolic value. The sale and consumption of coca (but not pure cocaine) is legal and legitimate in these countries.
With the growth of the Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s, coca leaf became a valuable agricultural commodity, particularly in Peru and Bolivia, where the quality of coca is higher than in Colombia. To supply the foreign markets, the cartels expanded the cultivation to areas where coca was not a traditional crop. Many poor campesinos, driven from the central highlands by lack of land or loss of jobs, migrated to the lowlands and valleys of the eastern Andes, where they turned to the cultivation of coca.
To counter this development, the U.S. government, through its foreign aid agency USAID, has promoted a policy of crop substitution, whereby coca cultivation is replaced by coffee, banana, pineapple, palm heart, and other crops suitable for a tropical climate. However; many remote coca-growing areas lack the infrastructure to get such perishable products to market on time. Coca on the other hand stores well and is easily transportable. The price of coca has remained high and in many cases remains a more attractive crop to farmers than these alternatives.
Despite these obstacles, many farmers have embraced alternative crops. In 2006, Bolivia, as a result of alternative development programs, exported US$28 million of banana, US$1.9 million of pineapple, and US$7.0 million of palm heart. These industries now employ more than 20,000 people in the Chapare region.
Given the above-mentioned considerations, many critics of coca eradication believe the fundamental goal of the U.S. government is to constrict the flow of income to the Colombian Marxist rebel movement, FARC, which is heavily funded by the illegal drug trade, rather than combating drugs per se. Few if any such critics have anything favorable to say about the illicit drug trade, but they point out that under the current coca eradication policies, poor campesinos bear the brunt of efforts to combat it, while North American and European chemical companies (which supply chemicals needed in the manufacture of cocaine) and banks (which annually launder hundreds of billions of dollars in illegal revenues) continue to profit from the trade. (Although it is illegal in the United States for banks to hold funds from drug cartels—such as FARC—that have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations.)
Article 26 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a treaty promulgated with U.S. backing in 1961, states that "The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated."
The US-based Drug Enforcement Administration, along with local governments, has frequently clashed with cocaleros in attempts to eradicate coca across the Andes. This map shows the Chapare region in Bolivia, which has historically been heavily targeted for coca eradication. Human rights NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have accused the US of human rights abuses in the "coca war".
Meanwhile, the US-based Stepan Company is authorized by the Federal Government to import and process the coca plant which it obtains mainly from Peru and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia. Besides producing the coca flavoring agent for Coca-Cola, Stepan Company extracts cocaine from the coca leaves, which it sells to Mallinckrodt, a St. Louis, Missouri pharmaceutical manufacturer that is the only company in the United States licensed to purify cocaine for medicinal use.
At the start of 2003, there were 1,740 km2 of coca in worldwide cultivation, and Colombia represented more than 60% of that total. Critics of the Colombian eradication program had predicted that it would lead to higher coca production in Peru and Bolivia. However, in November 2003, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) claimed the area planted with coca in Peru and Bolivia combined fell by 35 km2 in the year up to June, which would suggest that the crop eradication program in neighboring Colombia had not driven production over the borders. According to ONDCP estimates, the area cultivated with coca in Bolivia rose from 244 km2 in 2002 to 284.5 km2 in June 2003, but this increase was more than offset in Peru, where the area fell from 366 km2 to 311.5 km2.
The U.S. figures were very different from preliminary estimates in September 2003 by the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia, which indicated that output in Peru and Bolivia may have risen by as much 21%, or 150 km2 that year. The White House office said its estimate was based on sampling from high resolution satellite imagery. The United Nations used a different technique and had not yet put out any formal estimate for 2003.
A March 2005 report by the ONDCP indicated that despite record aerial spraying of over 1,300 km2 of coca in Colombia in 2004, the total area under coca cultivation remained "statistically unchanged" at 1,140 km2. In response to the report, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an NGO that monitors the impact of US foreign policy in Latin America, observed that the aerial spraying strategy appeared to have hit its limits. According to WOLA, the new ONDCP data suggested a continued "balloon effect" as aggressive spraying in some areas has not deterred new cultivation elsewhere. The WOLA Senior Associate for Drug Policy commented, "The stable cultivation in 2004 throws into doubt US officials’ predictions of a major impact on US drug prices and purity." Regardless, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe vowed to press ahead with the U.S.-financed fumigation of coca crops.
Official estimates of coca cultivation in Peru for 2005 have yet to be released, but the State Department’s own reporting suggests that cultivation in Peru has increased.
In Bolivia, there has been a decrease in clashes since 2004, when Evo Morales and former President Carlos Mesa struck a deal allowing the Chapare region to legally grow a limited amount of coca, in addition to the already legal Yungas region.
In 2006 the Colombian government destroyed around 730 square kilometres, reaching new records in coca plant destruction. The Colombian government planned to destroy around 500 km2 of coca plants in 2007, which would leave only around 200 km2 left. The Colombian government planned to destroy the remaining coca gradually over the following years.
The U.S. has supplied tens of thousands of gallons of Roundup to the Colombian government for use in aerial fumigation of coca crops. We have been using a fleet of crop dusters to dump unprecedented amounts of high-potency glyphosate over hundreds of thousands of acres in one of the most delicate and bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. This futile effort has done little to reduce the availability of cocaine on our streets, but now we are learning that a possible side-effect of this campaign could be the unleashing of a Fusarium epidemic in the Amazon basin. The drug war has tried in vain to keep cocaine out of people's noses, but could result instead in scorching the lungs of the earth.
- Plan Colombia
- Agent Orange
- Evo Morales, Bolivian president and former cocalero activist
- Chapare Province, a historically targeted region of coca eradication in Bolivia
- Prohibition of drugs
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