Since 2000, Plan Colombia has sought to eliminate cocaine production through massive aerial spraying of coca fields with weedkiller. Now, 9 years later, we have seen not only the environmental and social destruction caused by this spraying, but also its failure to lower coca production.
First, it should be acknowledged that the production of cocaine is very harmful to the environment. Each acre of coca requires four acres of rainforest to be cleared, and processing cocaine uses highly toxic chemicals such as kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone, and carbide, which are typically dumped into rainforest streams.
However, in trying to eliminate coca production, aerial spraying has actually made the problem worse. Not only does aerial spraying indiscriminately kill native plants and farmers’ food crops along with coca, but farmers often replant coca deeper into the forest after their first crop has been destroyed, causing further deforestation. In addition, aerial spraying often causes the cocaine industry to simply move to a different area, bringing violence and corruption with it. Thus, in recent years drug production and political unrest has risen in Bolivia and Peru due to displacement of coca production from Colombia. Within Colombia, coca production has shifted from the Southeast to the western Pacific coast, where farmers are planting smaller coca plots in more isolated areas, making them much more difficult to find. The increase in activity of rebel groups like FARC in this region has led to the displacement and murder of local teachers and tribespeople. In addition, increase!
d coca production and hunting poses a large threat to the environment, especially given that the western Pacific coast of Colombia is an internationally-recognized “biodiversity hotspot” – that is, it is one of the most biologically rich and fragile regions in the world.
All of this harm, caused by displacement of the cocaine industry due to spraying, might be justified if aerial spraying were effectively eradicating coca production. However, the most recent U.N. data shows that between 2006 and 2007 coca production in Colombia increased by 27%, reaching its highest level since 2001 (U.N., 2008). In reality, Plan Colombia has not even come close to achieving its initial goal of halving coca production in six years, and it is never going to succeed so long as there is such high demand for cocaine in U.S. and Europe.
Although it is certainly true that the U.S. and European demand for cocaine is the primary cause of the problem, it is overly optimistic for Colombia to expect the U.S. government to substantially reduce demand. The United States has been waging a “War on Drugs” since 1969, it currently has the highest incarceration rate worldwide, and it has invested $5 billion in Plan Colombia precisely because it has had so much trouble controlling drugs and gangs at home.
Instead, Colombia needs to shift its strategy by making alternative rural development the centerpiece of its war on drugs. Alternative development – in the form of credit, infrastructure, cattle, forestry, fish, medicines, etc. – has always been a part of Plan Colombia, but is has taken a backseat to more military efforts like crop-spraying. Alternative development, however, can be a powerful incentive for farmers to voluntarily move away from coca.
The success stories of NGOs like Desarrollo y Paz have shown that even in the most conflict-ridden areas, farmers recognize the high social cost of coca, and they are willing to follow alternative livelihoods so long as they offer a reasonable standard of living (Economist 2001).
Finally, the United States has begun to realize that aerial spraying is not that effective. In January 2008, the U.S. Congress decreased military spending in their aid for Plan Colombia from 82 percent to 65 percent, and increased economic aid from 8 percent to 35 percent (Graham, 2008). Perhaps if Colombia takes the lead in championing rural economic development over military eradication, then the United States will follow suite and shift its aid in that direction as well.
Author Ben Gutierrez is a U.S. biology student at Harvard University.
“Spraying Misery.” The Economist. 19 April 2001: 7-9. Accessed 14 April 2009.
Graham-Silverman, Adam. “Colombian Aid Gets New Cash Calculus.” CQ Weekly Online. Jan 28 2008: 239-239. Accessed 14 April 2009.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “2008 World Drug Report.” p 66. Accessed 14 April 2008.