The Washington Times
Commentary, 12 October 1997

Douglas Jacobson

Our Environment and the Drug War

Most Americans are aware of the societal consequences of readily available, illicit drugs. Social decay, economic hardship, and drug-related crime all serve as examples of the damaging effects of narcotics on our communities.

At the same time, another dimension of the drug plague, that of the environmental devestation caused by narcotics cultivation and production, has been largely overlooked. The current state of the environment in the coca and opium-growing regions of Central and South America provides a shocking example of the wanton destruction attributable to the area's narcotics growers and processors.

Narcotics production has a devestating effect on the fragile rainforest environment for a number of reasons. First among them is the rapid deforestation of the region's rain forests, the lungs of the Earth. In the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forest have been cleared to make room for five billion coca bushes in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley alon. In addition to a global reduction of oxygen levels, deforestation also leads to the destruction of plant and animal habitats, the loss of potentially life-saving eco-knowledge, and soil erosion.

Coca leaves can be harvested up to six times a year. After multiple harvests no foliage remians to protect the delicate, exhausted soil from massive erosion. According to one researcher, Colombia, only the third largest producer of coca, will lose a third of its remaining forests and jungles by the end of the century. Furthermore, deforestation is often carried out through the environmentally ruinous slash-and-burn technique, which causes extensive pollution.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the precursor chemicals used to turn coca leaf into paste are extremely harmful to the environment. Toxins such as acetone, ethyl ether, and sulfuric acid are all dumped into Andean rivers and streams by the processors of coca. Part of Peru's Upper Huallaga River is already severely damaged, as are numerous other waterways on which the local populations depend for their food and water supplies. These toxic chemicals reduce water oxygen levels and increase pH levels, a process which either kills fish or makes them unfit to eat.

Although the damage is already extensive, there is a solution to the problem. Coca and poppy plants must be eradicated. A widespread eradication program, led by the United States, but implemented with the cooperation of the producer states, can be very effective in combatting both the social and environmental damage caused by narcotics production. Eradication would decrease both the supply of cocaine and the degradation of the Andean environment.

Through the use of any of a half-dozen environmentally benign chemicals, coca and poppy plants can be destroyed without harming the immediate surroundings or endangering food and water supplies. State Department-sponsored tests in Peru in 1989 proved the effectiveness of one of these chemicals (tebuthiuron, also known as Spike). Pellets of Spike dropped from airplanes proved to be plant-specific, leaving surrounding vegetation and streams unaffected. Eradication, when combined with an extensive recovery program which focuses on crop substitution and infrastructure development, can transform the region socially, economically, and environmentally. This would certainly be an improvement over the environmental and social destruction wrought by the growers and producers of mind-altering drugs.

Or so you would think. Surprisingly, environmental groups have either remained suspiciously quiet on this matter or have violently opposed any actions that would involve eradication. Greenpeace's claims that eradication would prove more harmful than growing and processing coca are not supported by any conclusive evidence.

Despite the fact that laboratory and field tests have repeatedly proved that Spike poses little if any threat to animals and plants, ecological groups refuse to open their eyes. Growers and processors of narcotics have already killed millions of plants and animals and will continue to do so.

This fact, not the remote possibility of damage due to an environmentally benign herbicide, should convince organizations such as Greenpeace and the National Wildlife Foundation to endorse eradication. These groups should stop hesitating and start supporting efforts to stop the destruction of the environment not just in South America, but worldwide.

By using their substantial influence to push for poppy and coca eradication and the accompanying economic development programs, ecological groups can make drug use politically incorrect. Demand for drugs would certainly decrease. What self-respecting environmentalist would want to kill a tree or a three-toed sloth by snorting coke?

A coalition of anti-drug and environmental groups from both ends of the political spectrum would prove extremely effective in reducing both supply and demand for cocaine and other drugs.

Although some environmental organizations have been hesitant to participate in the War on Drugs, the destruction of the environment should provide them with a compelling reason to oppose narcotics production and use. An environmentally friendly slogan such as "Smoke crack and turn the rain forest black" would work wonders in making casual drug use socially unacceptable.

Douglas Jacobson is a senior researcher on environmental concerns for the National Defense Council Foundation.