Deforestation in Colombia increases due to Cocaine Cultivation

Scientists from Stony Brook University are reporting new evidence that cultivating coca bushes, the source of cocaine, is speeding up destruction of rainforests in Colombia and threatening the region’s “hotspots” of plant and animal diversity. The findings, which they say underscore the need for establishing larger protected areas to help preserve biodiversity, appear in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.

colombia cocaine cultivation

Image from Nariño in southern Colombia featuring recent clearings, abandoned clearings, and coca plants (center). (The picture was taken from low-flying aircraft.) (Credit: María Ximena Gualdrón / SIMCI)

Dr. Liliana M. Dávalos, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook, and her colleagues note that the pace of deforestation in Colombia has accelerated over the past 20 years, even as population growth has slowed and the economy has shifted from agriculture to other revenue sources. This increase in deforestation overlaps with an increase in the cultivation of coca for cocaine production, and the country accounted for 75 per cent of the world’s coca in 2000.

Earlier reports found that direct deforestation from coca was surprisingly small, with as little as 150 km2 of forests replaced by coca each year by 2005. Since rainforests contain about 10 percent of the world’s plant and animal species — some of which become the basis of new medicines — deforestation represents a serious threat to global biodiversity. With studies suggesting that coca cultivation contributes indirectly to deforestation, the scientists set out to further document this impact.

Their analysis of data from 2002-2007 on the effects of coca cultivation on deforestation of rainforests in Colombia identified several factors that boosted the likelihood that rainforests would be destroyed. In southern Colombia, a forest close to newly developed coca farms, for instance, was likely to be cut, as was land in areas where much of the farmland was devoted to coca.

This is the first time the indirect impact on deforestation from cultivation destined for the global cocaine market has been quantified across South America’s biodiversity hotpots.

The Stony Brook University scientists also showed that designating protected areas, regions that are set-aside for special protection for environmental reasons, reduced forest destruction in coca-growing areas. Establishing larger protected areas in the region could help control deforestation and preserve biodiversity, the report suggests.

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