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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The High Price of Colombia’s Drug Trade

Air Date: Week of

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In the second installment of our two-part series on the Colombian environment, we look at how that nation’s 40-year-old Civil War and drug trade have taken its toll on the natural world. Angela Swafford reports from Colombia’s Amazon forest.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Colombia is a country rich in bio-diversity. No other nation can claim more species of birds and amphibians. And it is abundant with flowering plants. But, 40 years of civil war in Colombia, and the related drug trade, have taken a toll on its natural world. The government says two and a half million acres of forest have been cut down in the last decade alone to make room for coca, and lately, for poppy--the source of heroin.

Add to that the damage done by the chemicals used to grow and process these crops. In the final installment of our series on Colombia and the environment, Angela Swafford traveled deep into rebel-held territory in the Amazonian forest of Colombia.


SWAFFORD: The air is moist and warm on this early morning at the airport in Florencia, a small city deep in the southern corner of Colombia. Two military helicopters filled with well-armed soldiers sit on the tarmac, ready for takeoff. I board one of them with Army General Roberto Pizarro.


VOICEOVER: We're heading to Tres Esquinas in the state of Caqueta, the command post for the joint military forces in the southern region of the country. The southern joint task force is the unit that groups all military and all police forces in the states of Putumayo and Caqueta. They're devoted to combat narco-terrorism, a true evil for the nation.


SWAFFORD: We fly over savannas interrupted by milky yellow rivers. The water quickly gives way to a thick carpet of roadless rainforest. This territory is controlled by the leftist rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a wealthy guerrilla organization that now runs most of the illegal drug business in Colombia. On this trip, we must fly higher than normal to avoid their fire.

The forest underneath us is probably filled with members of the rebel group. It also teams with other life--ocelots, jaguars, monkeys, giant armadillos. Unfortunately, in Colombia, a map of the most fragile, bio-diverse regions of the country will fit nicely on top of a map of its drug crops.


VOICEOVER: Look, look at those balding spots here, there, and those two over there. You can see where the soil has been disturbed. Those are coca crops.


SWAFFORD: Other areas have just been burnt down, and are ready to be planted, while others still show a bright green blanket of seedling coca plants.


VOICEOVER: In this region of the country there are over one hundred and eighty-five thousand acres of coca crops planted right now. It's estimated that in order to maintain each planted acre, four more acres of forest need to be cleared. So, the deforestation is, in fact, four times more serious. Here, almost four hundred acres of forest have been destroyed in order to maintain such high numbers of coca crops.

SWAFFORD: I can see what he means. Each planted plot is surrounded by a wider ring of cleared land. The General points to a couple of small, red roofs. These are makeshift labs where coca leaves are processed into paste and powder. I can barely see the wooden huts hidden under the canopy. It's Pizarro's job to destroy these labs through a combination of aerial bombing and raids by ground troops.


VOICEOVER: We launch offensive strikes against the coca crops and the processing labs on a daily basis. We destroy an average of three labs a day. Last year, we destroyed eight hundred laboratories just like this one.

SWAFFORD: Coca has a four thousand year tradition in South America and holds an important place in Andean indigenous culture. But now, it is the cornerstone of the FARC drug business, helping the guerrilla group pull in more than a billion dollars a year.


SWAFFORD: Tres Esquinas, or Three Corners military base, sprawls at the confluence of two large rivers. For the soldiers here, this is a small ring of safety surrounded by enemy territory. Its runways are long enough to handle jet fighters, radar planes, and transport aircraft, not to mention the many helicopters donated by the U.S. government.

Washington's latest investment in the drug war protrudes above the jungle like a giant white golf ball on a tee. It is a thirteen million dollar radar station that scans the horizon for small planes ferrying cocaine over the Amazon.


SWAFFORD: I follow the General to a makeshift wooden hut where a soldier on a megaphone will walk me through a VIP demo. Today, I happen to be the sole VIP around, so I get a private primer on how coca leaves are turned into coca paste.


SWAFFORD: First, a soldier chops up coca leaves that have been picked from the base's own coca plants, used for demo purposes only, of course.


SWAFFORD: Then, the leaves are mixed by foot with water and cement powder. I can't help but think of a great stomping scene in Tuscany. Eventually, this pulp is mixed with gasoline and sulfuric acid, a combination that disintegrates the leaves and draws out the active ingredient. The past is left to dry under the sun until it's ready to be converted into the infamous white powder. That recipe calls for many more chemicals: acetone, potassium permanganate, ammonia. Entire drums of this leftover broth are dumped into the ground or into rivers.

Add to that the thousands of gallons of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers these crops require. Then take that process and multiply it by the five hundred eighty tons of cocaine produced by Colombia every year. It adds up to an environmental disaster.


SWAFFORD: The nervous system of this base is located inside an enormous white tent. Once inside, you feel like you are in a midtown Manhattan office. Commander Hugo Acosta runs the day-to-day operations here. And he's also responsible for relations with the local peasant community. These same farmers actually grow the coca for the guerrillas. The commander says these people are caught in a Catch-22. They would like to be able to grow their traditional crops, but these yield very little money compared to what the guerrillas pay for coca.


VOICEOVER: We're trying to wean these people off coca by finding a way to distribute their traditional crops in other regions of the country. I've even given orders at the base to buy everything they produce--plantains, yucca, fish. I don't care if no one consumes it.

SWAFFORD: And while the peasants are paid for their labors, refusal isn't an option. Peasants have been killed for doing so. And even a side business is not allowed.


VOICEOVER: But, what happens is that the narco-guerrillas that control the territory don't allow them to sell the very few yuccas or plaintains they grow next to the coca plants because they don't want the peasants having any contacts with the enemy of the outside world. So, the result is that the peasants are forced to grow only coca and sell it to their masters. But anyone seen contacting us is marked as a rival.

SWAFFORD: In addition to destroying coca processing labs, this base is a launching point for a controversial U.S. funded fumigation program. Each month, at least five such missions take off, made up of one small crop duster and a helicopter-riding shotgun. The plane sprays a mixture of the herbicide glyphocate and other chemicals. In the course of a year, over seventy-five thousand acres of coca crops are destroyed in this way throughout the country.

I've been promised a ride-along on one of these missions. But, just moments before I'm to board one of the fumigation helicopters, I get some unsettling news. One of them has just been shot down by the FARC.


VOICEOVER: Yes, yes, they hit the chopper, and it suffered an emergency. And they had to land there where it was fumigating. We're going to send troops there right now to protect it.

SWAFFORD: Things are very hot now, and the General has decided to evacuate me. I had also been told I could witness the preparation of the herbicide. And there were plans to make contact with some of the peasants in the fields. Now, all that is impossible. I am escorted to a chopper which will take me out of the base area.


VOICEOVER: In a way it's good you had to witness this emergency so you could see for yourself what these terrorists are all about. They're all about protecting their drug business.


SWAFFORD: The chopper doors are opened, and I am strapped to the back seat. There's nothing to hold onto but the base of a machine gun. As soon as they drop me off, this crew will attempt to rescue their downed comrades.


SWAFFORD: That night in Bogota, I learned that before the rescue mission could reach them, the downed crew was murdered by guerrillas. During the following weeks it's impossible for me to get into the region again. Fighting has escalated, and getting out of the main cities to try to talk to peasants growing coca is out of the question. For me, they might as well be on another planet.

For Living on Earth, this is Angela Swafford in Bogota, Colombia.

– For a slideshow of this story, click here.– To read reporter Angela Swafford’s notebook, click here.


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