Successive governments have used environmental concerns to justify ramping up their war on drugs, but the research shows that in 2018 the amount of forest cleared to cultivate coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, was only 1/60th of that used for cattle.
Cattle-ranching, not cocaine, has driven the destruction of the Colombian Amazon over the last four decades, a new study has found. As the government has engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with coca farmers, the real driver of deforestation, cattle farming, has been allowed to swallow up vast swathes of land, the authors argue.
The findings vindicate conservation experts who have long argued that Colombia’s strategy to conserve the Amazon – often centered on combating coca production – has been misplaced.
“We want to finally eradicate this narrative that coca is the driver of deforestation,” said Paulo Murillo-Sandoval at the University of Tolima.
Deforestation spiked after the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016 and laid down their weapons. As the rebels came out of the jungle, land-grabbers took advantage, clearing trees with chainsaws and burning vast areas.
Deforestation reached a record high of 219,973 hectares (543,565 acres) in 2017, up 23% from the previous year. While cattle ranches cleared more than 3m hectares (7.4m acres) of Amazon rainforest in 2018, coca’s impact was negligible. Only 45,000 hectares (111,200 acres) were cleared for coca in 2018, the latest year available in the study.
The figures show that previous governments have used the environment as a false justification to wage war on coca farmers, said Angelica Rojas, liaison officer for Guaviare state at the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, a Colombian environmental thinktank.
“They didn’t want to prevent deforestation, they just wanted to justify spending more money and resources on their real political goal: eliminating coca.”
The study also adds to evidence that despite lives being sacrificed and billions of dollars being spent, Colombia’s “war on drugs” has failed to halt coca production – and in some cases it may have even made it worse.
When farmers have their crops eradicated they simply establish new plots, often just a few kilometres deeper into the forest canopy, Murillo said. “The war on drugs started 40 years ago now, yet everyone knows where coca is: in the same place they have always been.”
Colombian President Gustavo Petro is buying up millions of hectares of land to give to farmers.