The Effects of Coca Eradication in Colombia Julian Pena Ethics for Development in a Global Environment Professor Bruce Lusignan March 11, 2004

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The Effects of Coca Eradication in Colombia

Julian Pena

Ethics for Development in a Global Environment

Professor Bruce Lusignan

March 11, 2004.

A farmer wipes his brow under the hot sun. He started on his crops early in the morning, most likely before sunrise and will most likely work until the sun goes down. He is working for his family, to support them, to provide food and shelter for his wife and two sons, even for other families. Yet the pressures of working to support a family are only a fraction of the strain put upon this farmer. The life of this farmer and others like him in Colombia is far more complex. If he does not harvest his crop he will most assuredly suffer from poverty and hunger, but there are other incentives for him to toil and harvest his crop. The constant threat of the local guerillas, paramilitary, cartels and even his own government keeps him ever vigilant and focused on his task at hand. He and many others who share in his struggles attempt to keep neutral but are inevitably caught up in the struggle for control of illicit drugs in Colombia.

On one hand this farmer is forced to harvest his crop of coca, a crop which produces the illicit drug of cocaine. Colombian drug cartels, organizations that produce and traffic drugs, put massive amounts of pressure on local farmers to harvest coca for the production of cocaine. Granted cartels pay as much as three times for the production of this illicit material, however despite this many such as the farmer would rather live a legitimate life harvesting non illicit crops. To counteract this cartels and rebels use the threat of force on the local farmers, therefore the farmer, even though his pay has increased, must work because his life has been threatened. On the other hand the farmer’s own government has waged war against him. Responding to worldwide pressure for drug eradication, the Colombian government, with help from primarily the United States government, has attempted to find these crop lands and destroy them thus hopefully eliminating the source of a large part of North America’s drug problem. However to the dismay of the farmer, this policy had begun to destroy his life as well. Crops are being lost, not only illicit crops but legal crops are being destroyed as well. This crackdown may cost the farmer his livelihood, to preserve those of drug users, users in the United States. Unbeknown to the farmer, his involvement with the United States may go further than his production of coca.

This problem of drug trafficking and production is nothing new to the nation and government of Colombia. Even before the modern era, indigenous Colombians were smoking coca leaves in excess. Now because of the wider use of drugs around the world, Colombian involvement in the production of these drugs as gained much notoriety. In the 1980’s the world’s supply of cocaine came directly from Colombia, although at this point in time its role was mainly the manufacturing and trafficking of Cocaine. The main ingredient of cocaine, the coca plant itself, had been imported from other South American countries such and Peru and Bolivia where it was grown. As the process went, cartels in Colombia would reprocess the coca into cocaine and then ship it to distributors in the United States and Europe. In the 1980’s Colombian was responsible for half the global cocaine market which also accounted for 2.9 percent of Colombia’s GDP.(Garcio-Bario 2) As the 80’s decade passed on the figures increased as the drug problem flourished among the belief that these drugs were not as harmful as they were. Colombia “came to control 75 percent of the global market, with revenues from trafficking equivalent to 5 percent share of the country’s GDP.”(Garcio-Bario 2) With cocaine becoming a major source of cash and wealth, cartels such as the Medellin cartel, headed by the infamous Pablo Escobar, feverishly sought political recognition within Colombia. When this movement by the Medellin cartel did not succeed violence ensued. Pablo Escobar and his cartel waged war against the state of Colombia in a period filled with “extreme violence in the form of assassinations and indiscriminate bomb attacks.”( Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) The struggle continued in the early 90’s as well. The Colombian government along with the help of the United States successfully disbanded the Medellin cartel. However instead of curbing the production of drugs in Colombian these efforts were in vain as the power and assets of the Medellin cartel ultimately just passed on to the Cali cartel, led by the Orejuela brothers. During this time the money made from cocaine sales stabilized at about 4.9 percent of the Colombian GDP with the coca base now being grown and processed with the countries borders.(Lobe 1)

Fig.1. Colombian paramilitaries during a time of terror.

After the fall of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, the Orejuela brothers were also brought to justice and prosecuted in 1995. From this point on those who produced and trafficked drugs took notice and began to change their ways and methods of operations. New drug lords arose in Colombia, however despite their obvious power these drug lords kept a lower profile than that of Escobar and the Orejuela brothers. These drug lords were no longer interested in political power with the Colombian government as well. Many of them simply wanted to carry out their business, eventually using their investments from their cocaine business to become legitimate business people. Because of these new strategies Colombia was no longer a major beneficiary of the drug trade. Diversification of funds and product led to a fall in GDP share from cocaine to 2.3 percent in years between 1995-2000.(Lobe 1)

Fig.2. Colombian Coca Plant

After years of violence on behalf on these cartels and drug lords Colombia was left in a bit of a crisis. Combined with its trade liberalization in the 1990’s, Colombia also faced problems within the agricultural community. Farmers were pushed toward the agricultural frontier where normal crops could not compete with illicit ones such as opium and coca. Here they and their families faced situations found in other areas of poverty. Lack of education, basic living needs (water), and infrastructure led many of these poor people to work and harvest illicit crops. So once again the people of Colombia are put in the middle of a battle they want no part of. Although many of them have no interest in harvesting coca or opium against the wishes of their government, they must do so in order to survive. But now they have a new “enemy” in the United States, as the United States is beginning to attack their way of life for its own benefit and the benefit of U.S. citizens.

The drug problem that has risen in the United States is very well noted by the government and citizens all around. Drugs have become cheaper and more available to United States citizens. Noting this and the violence that the trafficking of these drugs induces the American Government has decided to take a stand against drugs. The United States government in turn has decided to proceed with their war on drugs by attacking the source which includes production sites in foreign countries, namely Colombia. But how does the United States go about eliminating the heart of the industry with directly using force against the cartels and rebels that produce and export these drugs? The use of force would not be tolerated by the Colombian government as it would require further American occupation, something that the international community is wary of at the present moment. So the U.S. government has devised a plan for Colombia in which the eradication of the coca plant has taken precedence over the eradication of the various drug lords and cartels. To follow through with this new plan to wipe out the coca plant, the source of the cocaine drug, the United States has pledged billions of dollars to Colombia to help facilitate the eradication of coca. Where does this money go? The money goes to fund the tactics of the Colombian military that aim to kill coca, marijuana and opium plants. The Colombian military with the funds and some resources provided by the United States uses its helicopter and airplanes to spray suspected coca plantations and other crops with a chemical called glyphosate that kills the plant and thus the source of the drug problem. Glyphosate or phosphonomethyl-glycine is an herbicide with various uses such as planting site preparation, conifer release, forest nurseries, rights-of-way and facilities maintenance, and noxious weed control. It targets plants such as deep rooted perennial weeds, brush, grasses and other herbaceous plants such as coca, opium and marijuana. Once sprayed on the target crop by means of aerial spraying, truck spraying or hand held application, the chemical is absorbed by the leaves of the target crop. After the chemical has been absorbed by the target plant it acts by inhibiting protein production within the plant, thus causing the plant to cease growth and eventually dying. Glyphosate theoretically is an ideal chemical to eradicate coca, opium and marijuana in Colombia. The compound itself is not harmful to the environment as it does not react with common soil and is water soluble, thus proclaiming to be environmentally friendly in regards to its use. Thus the Colombian government began to use its aerial spraying techniques to blanket farms, plantations and sometimes even parts of rainforest, where many coca crops are suspected to be hidden by the cartels, with glyphosate without the worry of a harmful environmental impact. However upon recent study by the United States, more specifically the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs some concerns have been addressed about aerial spraying techniques and its immediate and long term effects. Those effects have been documented in their various reports concerning, “Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia.” Here is an excerpt from a report dating back to March 25, 2003, provided by the Bureau:

Potential Environmental Impact of Spraying

  • Differences Between Licit and Illicit Crop Spraying
    Public and Media Perceptions of the DoS Eradication Program
    Review of Recent Verification Reports
    Goal of Zero Collateral Damage
    Impact on Crop and Non-Crop Vegetation
    Impact on Bodies of Water and Marine Life
    Impact on Humans and Animals

Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs


Fig. 3 – Planes such as the one seen her spray suspected coca fields

espite the good intentions of the Colombian and United States government there are some obvious drawbacks that are coupled with their efforts, which are shown above. Yet the effects that are of great importance are those highlighted and italicized in the previous list put out by the Bureau. Tactics used by the Colombian government regarding its spraying of illicit are similar to those used by the allies in World War II. Allied planes would use thousands of pounds of munitions and would blanket targets with dumb bomb. This action unfortunately resulted in a massive amount of undesired collateral damage to the nearby communities and innocent civilians. The Colombian government is using similar tactics with the planes and helicopters that they use to spray the chemical glyphosate. These planes and helicopters usually just blanket suspected
coca crops with glyphosate, panning back and forth over the target area without serious regard for precision. With this, many of the surrounding areas and communities are suffering from the collateral damage caused by the spraying of glyphosate. First and foremost lays the problem of discerning licit and illicit crops, as documented above.

Many farmers in Colombia not only grow coca but licit crops that they also depend upon as a source of income such as yucca, a primary food source. Indiscriminate spraying of various areas suspected of harvesting coca has also caused the destruction of many medicinal plants used by indigenous peoples and others. Along with this collateral damage comes the revelation of the effectiveness of the overall plan to wipe out the coca production in Colombia. The United States has invested over 2 billion dollars in the effort to combat drugs Colombia, yet according to a representative of Colombia’s Peace Informers Network, its efforts “have been as little as 15 percent effective in killing coca plants in Colombia.”(Garcio-Bario 3)

On top of this information from the Colombia’s Peace Informers Network lies the fact the flow of drugs that have come into the United States has not seen a significant decrease despite these efforts. Cocaine, heroine, and other drugs are still widely available to the American public. Very soon the United States state department will release is annual report regarding countries joined in the fight on drugs. It is anticipated that the report will show a drop in Colombian cocaine production during the 2003 year, however these gains are minimal compared to the environmental and economic damage caused by the fight on drugs in Colombia. This is demonstrated in the above report, given out by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, when it denotes the Impact on Humans and Animals.

Regarding the impact of glyphosate spraying on animals within the Colombian region it has been documented that the chemical in fact has begun to contaminate the local waters, running off from the soil which it is absorbed in. This contamination had led to the death of various species of marine life in contaminated Colombian rivers. It has also been documented that the chemical had caused the death of various livestock and other farm animals. The glyphosate has also greatly the human farming population of Colombia. Contaminated soil and drinking water has led to cases of fever, diarrhea and other ailments linked to indiscriminate glyphosate spraying. Within the past year more harmful effects, such as skin infections and lung complications, come been discovered amongst the farming population. Some of the effects of glyphosate spraying are shown here in a study of the Aponte Settlement, where coca spraying is in full effect. The numbers shown represent individual persons.

Table 3. Morbidity reported in the Aponte Settlement of Colombia in 1999 and estimated for 2000.



2000 Estimated

Acute diarrhea



Acute respiratory infection















Total for 6 suspected illnesses



Fig. 4 – From the U.S. Department of State,

Even though many Colombians have to worry about the health effects of coca eradication, many more are preoccupied with the economic impact of coca eradication. As documented above, coca production can be the main source of income for many people in Colombia. Coca is a cash crop bringing in almost three to four times the amount of money than licit crops such as yucca. With this kind of market it is easy to see why so many have begun to cultivate coca. But many farmers do not have a say in their choice of crop as many are forced by Colombian guerillas to cultivate coca which ultimately goes to fund their various organizations and activities. Many farmers must also pay the paramilitary taxes or face the consequences. Ironically if even if they do pay and are found out by the guerillas, the guerrillas attack the farmers. The same kind of influence is also found within the numerous regions controlled by the Columbian cartels. So many Colombian farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. However the severity of their situation is evident as every day is constant struggle to survive in the most literal sense of the word. With all of these outside pressures it is understandable why the tactic of the Colombian glyphosate spraying is unpopular in most urban areas. If such activities continue it would have a great impact not only on the lives of farmers but of the economy which they are a large part of. Continued glyphosate spraying in rural areas is ultimately costing farmers their jobs. As many as an estimated 50,000 people associated in the area of Putumayo, a known region of coca cultivation, have left the province because of the diminished crops and inability to farm coca. As many as 6,500 farmers there have filed complaints against this spraying, citing many instances of destroyed legal crops, many of which have been left without compensation. It is estimated that if this trend continues and coca cultivation is drastically reduced as many as 100,000 Colombians could end up homeless in the main southern drug-producing regions of Caqueta and Putumayo (van Reenan 1). To alleviate the economic strain that would be caused by the eradication of coca, the United States has proposed funds and ideas that would facilitate the growth of licit plants that would be beneficial for the government and farmers alike. Legitimate factories are planned to be built which process crops such as the tropical food of palmito which has a rather high value and demand in Europe. This would provide many legal and legitimate jobs for those who are forced out of coca production. The United States has put almost 62 million of its dollars towards research and development of other marketable goods that could possibly replace coca in the Colombian region and still be the least bit competitive with coca prices. (Rhoda 1) But despite their efforts the United States and the Colombian government cannot fix all of the problems that coca eradication would cause.

Another major problem that may sometimes be overlooked is the fact the guerrillas and cartels are still going to demand a high amount of coca for their cocaine production. Most drug producing groups in Colombia would not be happy with the sudden decline in coca, seeing as they are shipping out a combined 520 tons of cocaine a year.( Rhoda 2) This would be a serious loss in money for cartels and guerrillas alike. So another means of coca would need to be found and they have found it. With many areas in the Colombian region being sprayed with glyphosate, many of these groups are moving their plantations and crops outside of Colombia, to parts of Peru, Bolivia and even deep into areas of the Amazon forests. Here the indigenous people are being employed to grow and harvest coca for the various cartels. But as one could see this could lead to an even greater environmental disaster. Not only are the cartels clearing out rainforest to make way for coca, but the government will undoubtedly attempt to eradicate these very plantations as well. What does this mean? More aerial spraying of glyphosate, only this time the target is the Amazon forest. With the facts on effects of glyphosate spraying in rural areas it is easy to see how this situation is a very bad one. All in all, the attempt to eliminate coca will become a vicious cycle that will end up in either environmental or economic disaster. But what can be done to curb the amount of cocaine without hurting other countries’ economies and environments?

For the United States the obvious answer is to focus more on the demand that is coming from our country. The only reason cartels and drug lords are producing so much cocaine is the high demand for it here in the United States. Teens are using drugs now more than ever despite an extensive education on drugs that is addressed in public schools. Use among adults is rampant as well. Overall it is as though the drug culture has become more accepted today despite the obvious threats that they pose. The United States need to fight the battle within its own borders. Although it is a good idea to attack the source of the problem in this case it does not work. In order for programs like Plan Colombia, to work the United States would need the full cooperation of the Colombian government and other governments in which drug production is a problem. However the U

Figure 5. – Massive amounts of cocaine like the in this photo are found and confiscated at American borders.
nited States will never fully gain the full support of many of these governments. The fact remains that many of these governments are funded by the cartels and drug lords they haphazardly seek to eliminate. Drug money funds armies, elections, the building of structures and other legitimate operations. Many drug lords are well liked within their respective countries. They extend their generosity fund hospitals, churches, schools and even sports teams. Their removal would not be popular amongst the common people which perhaps one of the many reasons coca productions remains in parts of South America. Noting this, the eradication of coca, the destruction of the environment and the lives of many farmers is not the way to go about solving the United States’ drug problem.

So again, what can be done to help win the war on drugs for the United States? What can be done to preserve the lives of so many in Colombia and the surrounding regions? What can be done to preserve the environment in these regions? For the United States, The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has offered these alternatives to foreign drug policies:

  • “Decrease use of illegal drugs,
    alcohol, and tobacco by youths.

  • Seek more effective, efficient and accessible drug treatment programs

  • Oppose legalization of marijuana and other
    dangerous substances”. (Office of National Drug Control Policy. 1997d)

So with these objectives it is evident that the United States also has a plan to fight drugs within its borders. Why then continue with the futile struggle to eliminate coca in Colombian, when it has been well documented that these efforts are in vain, as coca production has not declined? Why continue to spray glyphosate and destroy vital farmland and licit crops that provided jobs and a livelihood to the urban population? The answer lies in the fact the United States may have alternative motives for its presence in Colombia. In short the United States may be present in Colombia for Colombia’s oil. Not only does Colombia has large oil reserves but also possesses resources such as gold, silver, and copper that has great value as well. In regards to oil though, Colombia produces almost as much oil as the many of the Middle Eastern nations and with that area being very volatile coupled with the rising prices of petroleum around the world, it is understandable that the United States is searching for other means of the “black gold.” Colombian at this point in time has about 2.6 billion barrels of oil in their possession. Even though this is a small amount compared to the rest of the oil producing nations around the world, the United States finds promise in the fact that only twenty percent of Colombia’s territory has been tapped for oil. Therefore it could be considered that the United States, by spraying to kill the coca plant, is also attempting to remove farmers and the urban population of their respective lands in order to investigate these areas for oil. So the main goal for the United States may not have been the eradication of coca, although it is a legitimate and worthy front, but rather the hunt for oil to for the benefit of its the nation.

Figure 6. – Map of Colombian with respect to drugs, oil production and military occupation.

Whatever the reason for the United States presence in Colombia the fact remains that the country along with the Colombian government is doing more harm than good in that region. Cartels, guerrillas, and other drug lords will undoubtedly find more and more places to grow their precious coca despite the efforts put forth by the United States. The United States will keep supporting the spraying of glyphosate among Colombian lands, despite the knowledge of the collateral damage and it may be just what the United States government wants. So in the end the Colombian farmer will simply be a pawn in an international chess game. His hardships will continue. He will have to satisfy the cartels and guerillas. He will have to feed his family. He will have to comply with his government and the government of the United States. His life and the lives of others like may or may not be taken from him. He may lose all his crops and have to move from his native lands. The farmer ultimately may end up working in a factory or in the oil fields. Whatever the case may be it remains that his probable demise is needed to maintain the comfort and livelihood of the United States and its citizens.

Bibliography of Resources

Garcio -Bario, Constance. “U.S. War on Drugs in Colombia is Ravaging Farmers and Land.” 2 March 2004. Common Dreams Newscenter.
Lobe, Jim. “U.S.-Colombia Coca Eradication Called Destructive, Futile.” 3 March 2004. One World US.
Glyphosate Information:

van Reenan, Saskia. “Colombian Farmers Protest Coca Spraying.” 4 March 2004. Radio Netherlands.

Metcalfe, Rhoda. “Plan Colombia Under Scrutiny.” 3 March 2004. Radio Netherlands.

Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “Report on Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia  .” 3 March 2004. One World US.
Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “Report on Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia  .
Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “U.S. Narcotics Control Initiatives in Colombia


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