Environmental Concerns in the Colombian Drug War Essay

Few people in the world today would dispute the social problems related to illegal drug use and trafficking. New technology has made both production and delivery of narcotics easier and enhanced communication continuously makes the earth a smaller sphere to navigate.

Indeed, many leaders have identified the global drug trade as one of the premier emerging issues in the post Cold-War era, since from the Sudan to South America, drug money funds a host of undemocratic regimes and insurgencies.Particularly important to the United States, where, according to the Justice Department almost one third of Americans report illegal drug use, is the situation in Colombia. But the lush land that produces 90% of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. and 80% of the heroin, is also part of the Amazon rainforest and home to one of the earth’s most fragile ecosystems, a rich landscape that accounts for ten percent of the entire world’s biodiversity. Aerially, the lush greenness typifying the tropical environment is dotted with gray swatches, entire clear-cut areas left barren by crop dusters accompanied by Black Hawk helicopters in the latest chapter of U.S.

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interventionism in Latin America.This time, it’s under the guise of fighting the domestic “war on drugs”-itself a highly criticized venture-and it involves a massive eradication effort that focuses on cutting the supply of controlled substances before they make it to American shores. Current American policy, however, is doomed not only because of pre-existing social conditions in Colombia, but also because it exacerbates an ongoing environmental disaster and will have a devastating effect on the local ecology. The price of such environmental degradation promises to be high-both for Colombia and the entire region, and, unless current objectives are revised, has the potential to draw the United States into an unclear and unwinnable conflict.SOMEWHERE DOWN THEREUnraveling the social and political quagmire that is Colombia reveals roots of violence dating back to the early 19th century.

Since 1810, this former Spanish colony’s history has been one of civil war, regional conflicts, and warring political factions unable or unwilling to reconcile their ideologies. Colombia holds the distinction of being home to the only military dictatorship in 19th century as well as the sole military coup in 20th century. The current political climate pits the government against two major guerrilla forces, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and is typical of a historical motif in Colombian politics-that of insurgent leftwing revolutionaries opposing a central government charged with corruption and abuses.As Carlos M. Salinas points out in Foreign Affairs, while the actors and acronyms may be slightly different, the current unresolved violence stems from the repeated failure of successive governments to recognize and address the socioeconomic friction resulting from a colonial legacy that concentrates 70% of Colombia’s wealth in the top third of the population. Emphasizing the historical bitterness of Colombia’s politics, Mr. Salinas questions American policies that give too much weight to “narco-guerrilla” theories guiding U.S.

Colombian relations and ignore Colombia’s systemic problems, thus making for misdirected and ultimately ineffective relations.Cashing in on a bull market demand for cocaine beginning in the 1970’s, opportunistic political forces in Colombia have become entrenched in illegal coca cultivation and processing, complicating and deepening political differences. The FARC is the primary beneficiary of coca production, taking in an estimated $400 million in 2000 alone, but nearly every one of Colombia’s many factions has funded their operations with drug money. The right-wing paramilitary groups that originally formed to oppose the FARC are reaping huge benefits from taxing coca production in the areas they control.These rightwing groups, who have taken the civil war into their own hands, are often financed by non-FARC drug traffickers, further mudding Colombia’s internal struggles. The human rights abuses, well documented on both sides but primarily a feature of the paramilitary death squads, should come as no surprise in a land full of conflicting policies and unclear political goals. Despite the official denouncement of such activities by the Colombian government, there remain close links between the Colombian military and the right-wing militias. As a result, Colombia now faces a war on five fronts: narco-trafficking, leftist guerrilla insurgencies, right-wing paramilitary violence, a weak government, and a faltering economy.

Meanwhile, it is Colombia’s rich natural resources which all sides of the conflict seek to control, but in doing so are threatening the very land they are dying over. With coca crops commanding high prices, the clear-cutting of the rainforest has escalated as both traffickers and peasants keep fields mobile to avoid detection. A Trade and Environment Database (TED) case study of Colombia in 1997 said this migration was responsible for the clearing of over 1.75 million acres of rainforest at that time. The study also cited the environmental damage resulting from the improper disposal of the chemical waste used in processing the coca plants, since the production is hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest, and estimated that over 200,000 tons of chemical wastes are dumped into the ground and streams each year. Such environmental denigration, made possible by Colombia’s inadequate infrastructure, can only complicate the developing nation’s struggle for peace, whenever that may be achieved.PLAN COLOMBIAEmploying a combination of chemical and biological agents, U.

S. policy makers have zeroed in on attacking the supply of coca, and in 1998 Congress passed a 1.3 billion dollar aid package to Colombia that is part of Colombian President Andr�s Pastrana’s $7.5 billion effort involving money, loans, and international donations designed to cure Colombia’s ills. Focusing on crop eradication, the bulk of U.S. funds will be used militarily to provide 60 combat helicopters, which are to be used to ferry U.

S.-trained troops into drug-producing areas where leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups are active.The troops are to seize the areas and allow planes to destroy drug crops by aerial spraying of an herbicide without being shot down. Only $122 million of the U.S. billion-dollar aid package has been earmarked for social development, the bulk of that being designated for improvements in human rights abuses and justice programs. This intensified military involvement continues a long history of U.S.

support for Colombia’s armed forces and police, with whom the U.S. has been battling communism since the 1960’s. But despite the fact Colombia has been the number one recipient of foreign aid behind Israel and Egypt, Plan Colombia represents a frightening escalation of U.S. involvement.While U.S.

involvement in Colombia is a debatable mixture of Cold-War politics and an outgrowth of domestic drug policies, current American actions are ineffective, unjustified, and can only serve to worsen Colombia’s damaged natural environment. Ambiguity over the real enemy in Colombia (Are they rebels or are they dealers?) indicates that U.S. policy will be floundering instead of addressing the root of the issues at stake.

The fact that most U.S. aid will back the questionable Colombian military, and almost none is designated for economic development, clearly indicates a disregard for achieving real peace in Colombia by dealing with the institutional roots of the country’s conflict. A decision to rely on aerial fumigation, whether it is to reduce the supply of coca or weaken the FARC by reducing their profits, carries huge environmental risks, both to Colombia and the entire region as FARC and other traffickers simply move their operations deeper into the jungle.BIOWARFARE? VIETNAM?The primary two agents the U.S.

is employing in the eradication campaign are the herbicide glyphosate and the toxic fungus fusarium oxysporum, both of which have come under attack by environmentalist groups. Classified as a Category III Toxin, which calls for caution in handling because it can cause gastro-intestinal problems, vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, mental confusion, and destruction of the red corpuscles in mucus membrane tissues, U.S. manufactured glyphosate is currently being sprayed on coca crops, despite the fact it has never been tested in a tropical environment. In a November 2000 article in Environment Bulletin, Danielle Knight examines the concerns of scientists who are alarmed with the fumigation and reports by regional leaders of devastating results.Charges that glyphosate is destroying food crops along side the hearty coca plant, causing health problems in farm animals, and contaminating the water supply have been made by numerous advocacy groups but generally silenced by the Colombian government.

Some leaders, like David Olson of the World Wildlife Fund, quoted in her article compare the defoliation resulting from glyphosate spraying to the use of Agent Orange during Vietnam, and liken Colombian defoliation to “dynamiting the Taj Mahal” in terms of loss of global bio-diversity.Far more questionable, though, are strong-armed U.S.

attempts to use the Fusarium fungus strain to attack coca plants. Categorized in the draft of the Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention as a biological agent for war, Fusarium oxysporum, once released into the environment is impossible to withdraw and has unpredictable effects according to Kintto Lucas in his October 2000 article in Environment Bulletin. An Associated Press article from July 2000 highlights the struggle over this controversial fungus that has been denounced by scientists worldwide due to its unpredictable nature.In early July of 2000, the State Department said that Colombia had agreed to test the effectiveness of the fungicide, but Colombian officials denounced the statement saying it could threaten the biodiversity of the entire region.

Interestingly enough, the state of Florida rejected a plan to test a strain of Fusarium against marijuana crops in 1999 citing the potential to damage desirable crops and attack depressed immune systems in humans. Presented under auspices of the United Nations, the proposal to employ the fungicide was rejected by Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr at the time, but may be increasingly difficult to resist if promised aid from the U.S. is withheld or international pressure is increased.Empirical evidence suggests that not only are fumigation efforts damaging to the environment, they are ultimately ineffective. In an October 2000 article in Chemical and Industry, Alex Crawford notes that after two years of chemical eradication by the U.S. Department of Defense, Colombian cocaine production has risen by half, indicating the futility of such tactics.

Colombia’s rich land offers a paradise to coca cultivation, and growers are simply moving further into the Amazon rainforest to operate. Obviously, the situation will continue as long as coca remains the most profitable cash crop, and, like the TED case study “Deforestation in Colombia” notes, “Drug war induced deforestation in Colombia have led experts to theorize that Colombia could become another Somalia or Ethiopia within 50 years, i.e. a fast growing population that is larger than the food production can support due to poor agricultural soils or techniques.”REGIONAL COMMUNITYVirtually no country in South America has been exempt from the narcotics war, and their interests in the battle may converge around their shared environment. Regional attitudes to Colombia’s struggle have centered around worries that the conflict will spill over into their territories, either in the form of refugees, cocaine production, guerrillas or drug traffickers seeking shelter from a widely expected military offensive-all of which simply dump potential environmental degradation in their laps.

Ecuadorian officials were quoted in the Lucas article reporting that Colombia’s fumigation was devastating yucca crops in Ecuador and causing pesticide poisoning in Ecuadorian peasants. While some regional leaders have formed an alliance called the Amazon Defense Front to monitor environmental damage resulting from coca eradication and condemn the current offensive, others such as Chilean President Ricardo Lagos are supporting Plan Colombia on the condition it focus more attention to alternative crop development. Regardless of their individual concerns, South American leaders are treading lightly in acknowledgement of the enormous power the U.S. has over the drug war.The illegality of coca growth and cocaine production is officially a strictly internal matter of the Colombian determination, which has decided to comply with the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

However, the reality of the situation is quite different. The United States has considerable influence over the drug policies pursued by Colombia, just as it has considerable influence through out the Western Hemisphere, through the distribution of aid and economic agreements. The U.

S. has passed judgment on drug producing nations since 1986, essentially determining whether the country is contributing sufficient efforts towards counter-narcotics programs. A failing rating strips the country of its foreign aid eligibility and preferred trade status, both of these being strong deterrents to drug policy rebellion.The Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), signed into law on December 4, 1991, authorizes the President to proclaim duty-free treatment or reduce duties on eligible products of four Andean mountain countries of South America Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

The goal of ATPA is to promote the development of sustainable economic alternatives to drug crop production in the Andean countries by offering alternative Andean products broader access to the U.S. market. But the preferential trade benefits offered under ATPA appear to have had little effect on eradicating drug crops, according to the 1995 annual report by the U.S. International Trade Commission on the probable future impact of the agreement.

The report documented the largest increase in coca cultivation since the inception of ATPA in 1995 despite trade efforts.”�FUERA YANKY JUNKY!” (YANKY JUNKIE GO HOME!)The alternative crop development plan encouraged by treaties and the international community is doomed to failure under current American policies. The farmers often have switched to growing drug crops for economic reasons, placing a greater stress on the environment as the farmers hunt to supplement their diets.

If the farmers do grow subsistence crops in addition to their drug crops, both crops are generally destroyed by drug enforcement officers through indiscriminate aerial spraying because the two fields are either overlapping or adjacent to one another. Additionally, an adequate infrastructure to support crop diversification is lacking in Colombia and the failure of Plan Colombia to address economic or social issues will leave this problem unsolved.To win the war on drugs, America must acknowledge a hegemonic, if not moral, responsibility to respect the integrity of Colombia’s natural resources and concentrate on the incessant demand for drugs. The unique position of the United Sates, through its influence and example, to set the tone for international interactions has not always been used in an equitable fashion, especially in Latin America. Even if money that has been pledged in Plan Colombia were diverted today into areas addressing the societal reasons behind Colombia’s violence, the volatile situation could take a long time to diffuse.

Ultimately, the American craving for illegal narcotics is destined to fuel political factions in Colombia and throughout the world as long as there is a profit to be made. Destruction of a country’s natural resources and policies that endanger the health of its citizens are worthy of international condemnation in any situation, especially when they were provoked by a simple response to market forces. The United States stands to entrench itself into Colombia’s tangled land under current policies exacerbating environmental damage and later in humanitarian aid to clean up the mess.

Americans must break their historically shady history with their southern neighbors, communicate a universal respect for the state of the global environment, and address the issue of drug abuse from inside the box.Bibliography”Andean Trade Preference Act: Impact on U.S.

Industries and Consumers and On Drug Crop Eradication and Crop Substitutions.” 3rd Report, Executive Summary 1995.”Chile will support Colombia plan.” United Press International, Oct 12, 2000.”Coca Killing Fungus Trials Ruled Out By Colombia.” Associated Press, 16 Jul 2000.

Crawford, Alex. “Waging war on deadly drugs.” Chemistry and Industry, Oct 2, 2000 p62.Knight, Danielle. “Colombia: Spraying Threatens Amazon, Warn Scientists.” Environment Bulletin.

Nov. 20, 2000.Lucas, Kintto. “Ecuador: Cross-Border Impact of Plan Colombia.” Environment Bulletin. Oct 16, 2000.

Salinas, Carlos M. “Colombia.” Foreign Policy Vol.

2, Number 49, October 1997.Trade and Environment Database (TED), TED Case Studies: “Colombia Coca Trade” (Washington DC: American University, 1997).Trade and Environment Database (TED), TED Case Studies: “Deforestation in Colombia” (Washington DC: American University, 1997).

U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Use in the USA website. http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/use.htmKathryn Birdwell


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