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Drug Crops Ravaging Colombia

In their hunger to expand poppy and coca fields, narcotics producers are wreaking havoc on the environment. Coffee farms and the water-giving cloud forest are among the victims.


SAN JORGE DE LAS HERMOSAS, Colombia — In the mountains of central Colombia, where the coffee bushes meet the clouds, this country's most famous legal export is dying of thirst. Coffee farmers complain that, for four years, the soil here has gotten progressively drier and that it rains less and less often, leaving their bushes parched and unproductive.

The mystery of the climate change clears up along with the morning mist: The uncovered peaks are a blaze of red and purple flowers bordered by the brown dirt of fields that opium poppy farmers have already harvested. Only a few of the mountaintops still have their olive-colored natural cover.

The effect on the eyes is a crazy quilt of colors. The effect on the environment is a disaster.

The scattered dark green patches are all that is left of the cloud forest of lichen-laden trees that trap the fog and condense it into water for the plants downhill. By cutting down the water-giving cloud forest to cash in on Colombia's emerging illegal export--heroin--poppy producers have toppled the delicate balance needed to grow Colombian coffee.

Coffee farmers here--like banana growers in Santa Marta on the northern coast and fishermen along the Inirida River near the Brazilian border--are learning that the damage from illegal drugs extends beyond political corruption and violence. Narcotics producers are wreaking environmental havoc, destroying the livelihoods of law-abiding Colombians today while stealing the inheritance of future generations, experts warn.

"The war against illegal drugs would be completely justified on environmental grounds alone," said Hector Moreno, director of PLANTE, a government program to develop alternative crops for coca and poppy farmers.

Illegal drugs have accelerated both the pace and scope of the destruction of Colombia's rich, diverse environment. Large-scale narcotics producers are beyond the law, respecting neither nature reserves nor prohibitions on highly toxic chemicals nor restrictions to prevent erosion. By changing the climate and poisoning the rivers, drug lords have forced Colombians to abandon legal occupations and enter their illegal industry.

Few experts have studied the environmental havoc related to drug production because illegal crops are grown mainly in guerrilla-controlled jungles and mountains, making research difficult and dangerous.

And because the consequences of drug production for legal crops like coffee and bananas--effects such as climate changes and environmental shifts--are fairly recent and are measured over longer time periods, most of the evidence of damage now is anecdotal and nearly impossible to quantify.

But those who have done studies, such as Luis Eduardo Parra, who heads the Colombian government's Environmental Audit of Illegal Crop Eradication, have concluded that "Colombia's environment is seriously threatened. In itself, that might not be important. But what is important is that we are a genetic bank for the world.

"Colombia is considered one of the seven countries with mega-diversity," a huge richness in plant and animal species, Parra said. Ranked by number of species in relation to the size of the country, he said, Colombia comes in fourth after Brazil, Madagascar and Suriname.

Species that are being lost to poppy and coca production might eventually be needed for medicine or to end a plague, experts warn.

Mountains and Jungles Imperiled

Because coca--the leaf used to make cocaine--grows at about sea level in the jungle and poppies grow in the mountains above 6,000 feet, illegal crops threaten two environments.

In five years, growers of coca bushes have destroyed a portion of the Amazon rain forest equivalent to twice the area of Los Angeles. In just four years, poppy farmers have cut down a cloud forest bigger than New York City.

"These Andean woods are our real water factory," Moreno said, referring to the South American cloud forest. "Because of the steepness of the mountains, poppy cultivation has generated irreversible problems of erosion."

Growers clear the land to plant poppies, leaving no plants that will hold soil during rains. Erosion caused by poppy cultivation has produced landslides in Chaparral, just down the road from here, Parra said. The growers also leave none of the lichen-covered trees that collect moisture from the clouds like natural sponges. That water runs down the trunks and collects to form streams.

"When you cut down the trees, you change the climate," Parra said. "Coffee growers are going to end up without their water resources, neither streams nor rain."

The banana growers near Santa Marta in the northern province of Magdalena are facing the same problem, according to U.S. Embassy research. So much of the forest in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta has been destroyed for poppy production that rain has decreased, adversely affecting banana production, although exact figures are not available, the embassy reports. That's because without trees, there is less precipitation.

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