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Coca eradication is a controversial strategy strongly promoted by the United Statesmarker government starting in 1961 as part of its "War on Drugs" to eliminate the cultivation of coca, a plant whose leaves are not only traditionally used by indigenous cultures but also, in modern society, in the manufacture of cocaine. This prohibitionist strategy is being pursued in the coca-growing regions of Colombiamarker (Plan Colombia), Perumarker, and formerly Boliviamarker, where it is highly controversial because of its environmental, health and socioeconomic impact. Furthermore, indigenous cultures living in the Altiplanomarker, such as the Aymaras, use the coca leaf (which they dub the "millenary leaf") in many of their cultural traditions, notably for its medicinal qualities in alleviating the feeling of hunger, fatigue and headaches symptomatic of altitude sicknesses. The growers of coca are named Cocaleros and part of the coca production for traditional use is legal in Peru, Bolivia and Chilemarker.

Environmental impact

Plots denuded of coca plants by mechanical means (burning or cutting) or chemical herbicides, such as Monsanto Company's Roundup, are abandoned and cause serious problems with erosion in seasonal rains.

In addition, the U.S. has also been involved in the development of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum to wipe out coca. In 2000, the Congress of the United States approved use of Fusarium as a biological control agent to kill coca crops in Colombia (and another fungus to kill opium poppies in Afghanistanmarker), but these plans were canceled by then-President Clinton, who was concerned that the unilateral use of a biological agent would be perceived by the rest of the world as biological warfare. The Andean nations have since banned its use throughout the region. (The use of biological agents to kill crops may be illegal under the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975.)

Source: DEA Intelligence Division, December 2001

On June 25, 2003, the Superior Administrative Court of the Colombian department of Cundinamarca ordered a stop to the spraying of glyphosate herbicides until the government complies with the environmental management plan for the eradication program. It also mandated a series of studies to protect public health and the environment. The Colombian State Council, the country's maximum administrative authority, later overruled the court's decision to stop fumigations.

Socioeconomic impact

In the sierra of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentinamarker, coca has been consumed (by chewing and brewing in infusion) for thousands of years as a stimulant and cure for altitude sickness; it also has symbolic value. The sale and consumption of coca (but not pure cocaine) is legal and legitimate in these countries.

With the growth of the Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s, coca leaf became a valuable agricultural commodity, particularly in Peru and Bolivia, where the quality of coca is higher than in Colombia. To supply the foreign markets, the cartels expanded the cultivation to areas where coca was not a traditional crop. Many poor campesinos, driven from the central highlands by lack of land or loss of jobs, migrated to the lowlands and valleys of the eastern Andes, where they turned to the cultivation of coca.

To counter this development, the U.S. government, through its foreign aid agency USAID, has promoted a policy of crop substitution, whereby coca cultivation is replaced by coffee, banana, pineapple, palm heart, and other crops suitable for a tropical climate. However; many remote coca-growing areas lack the infrastructure to get such perishable products to market on time. Coca on the other hand stores well and is easily transportable. The price of coca has remained high and in many cases remains a more attractive crop to farmers than these alternatives.

Despite these obstacles, many farmers have embraced alternative crops. In 2006, Bolivia, as a result of alternative development programs, exported US$28 million of Banana, US$1.9 million of pineapple, and US$7.0 million of palm heart.. These industries now employ more than 20,000 people in the Chapare region.

The Chapare and Yungas coca-growing zones in Bolivia.
Source: US General Accountability Office

Geopolitical issues

Given the above-mentioned considerations, many critics of coca eradication believe the fundamental goal of the U.S. government is to constrict the flow of income to the Colombian pseudo-Marxist rebel movement, FARC, which is heavily funded by the illegal drug trade, rather than combating drugs per se. Few if any such critics have anything favorable to say about the illicit drug trade, but they point out that under the current coca eradication policies, poor campesinos bear the brunt of efforts to combat it, while North American and European chemical companies (which supply chemicals needed in the manufacture of cocaine) and banks (which annually launder hundreds of billions of dollars in illegal revenues) continue to profit from the trade.

Article 26 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a treaty promulgated with U.S. backing in 1961, states that "The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated."

The US-based Drug Enforcement Administration, along with local governments, has frequently clashed with cocaleros in attempts to eradicate coca across the Andes. This map shows the Chapare region in Bolivia, which has historically been heavily targeted for coca eradication. Human rights NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have accused the US of human rights abuses in the "coca war", including the use of paramilitary death squads against cocaleros.


In November 2003, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) claimed the area planted with coca in Peru and Bolivia combined fell by 35 km² in the year up to June, which would suggest that a crop eradication program in neighboring Colombia was not driving production over the borders. According to its estimates, the area cultivated with coca in Bolivia rose from 244 km² in 2002 to 284.5 km² in June 2003, but this increase was more than offset in Peru, where the area fell from 366 km² to 311.5 km².

However, the U.S. figures were very different from preliminary estimates in September 2003 by the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crimemarker in Colombia, which indicated that output in Peru and Bolivia may have risen by as much 21 %, or 150 km², so far this year. The White House office said its estimate was based on sampling from high resolution satellite imagery. The United Nations used a different technique and had not yet put out any formal estimate for 2003.

At the start of 2003, there were 1,740 km² of coca in worldwide cultivation, and Colombia represented more than 60% of that total. Critics of the Colombian eradication program had predicted that it would lead to higher coca production in Peru and Bolivia.

However, a March 2005 report by the ONDCP indicated that despite record aerial spraying of over 1,300 km² of coca in Colombia in 2004, the total area under coca cultivation remained "statistically unchanged" at 1,140 km². In response to the report, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an NGO that monitors the impact of US foreign policy in Latin America, observed that the aerial spraying strategy appeared to have hit its limits. According to WOLA, the new ONDCP data suggested a continued "balloon effect" as aggressive spraying in some areas has not deterred new cultivation elsewhere. Official estimates of coca cultivation in Peru for 2005 have yet to be released, but the State Department’s own reporting suggests that cultivation in Peru has increased."The stable cultivation in 2004 throws into doubt US officials’ predictions of a major impact on US drug prices and purity," commented John Walsh, WOLA Senior Associate for Drug Policy. President Álvaro Uribe has however vowed to press ahead with U.S.-financed fumigation of coca crops.

In Bolivia, there has been a decrease in clashes since 2004, when Evo Morales and former President Carlos Mesa struck a deal allowing the Chapare region to legally grow a limited amount of coca, in addition to the already legal Yungas region.

In the year of 2006 the Colombian government had destroyed around 730 square kilometres beating all records in coca plants destruction. The Colombian government now plans to destroy around 500 km² of coca plants in 2007 and so there will be only around 200 km² left which will be destroyed in the following years.

The bottom line is that crop eradication - whether coca bush or poppy crop - can only be successful when economic alternatives are readily available for coca or poppy farmers to fall back on. Without a parallel policy of providing alternative livelihoods and general rural development, crop eradication is not a sustainable solution. Looking at the broader picture, somewhere in the world, farmers will always cultivate drug-producing crops as long as there is a demand for drugs such as cocaine and heroin.


See also


  1. Vicious Circle: The Chemical and Biological 'War on Drugs' report by the Transnational Institute (TNI), March 2001
  2. The Re-emergence of the Biological War on Drugs, TNI Drug Policy Briefing 7, May 2004
  3. Colombia Court Nixes Spray Program, Colombia Update
  4. Bolivian Chamber of Exporters - CAMEX
  5. Bolivia: Human Rights Violations and the War on Drugs, Human Rights Watch Vol. 7, No. 8 (B), July 1995]
  6. Aerial Spraying Fails to Reduce Coca Cultivation in Colombia, WOLA, March 31, 2003
  7. Erradicán manualment 50 mil hectáreas de coca en 2007, Presidencia de Colombia press release, January 3, 2007

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