Colombia's Price for Peace: Cocaine and the Environment
Sometimes winning the peace can be more complicated than winning the war.
At least that seems to be the hard lesson that Colombia is learning as deforestation and cocaine production skyrocket following an end to its 52-year internal conflict.
The reason is that the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (or FARC by their Spanish acronym) once controlled or influenced vast stretches of land in the Colombian Amazon, one of the world's largest swaths of tropical rainforest and a huge carbon sink. In those areas the rebels' presence precluded competitors from producing cocaine, a drug the FARC itself trafficked in, while also preventing the loss of forest cover that provided the perfect natural habitat for the group's brand of guerrilla warfare.
Now, with the FARC having swapped their balaclavas and AK-47 machine guns for suits and ties and the ballot box, the vacuum in those areas is being filled by a host of heavily armed groups driven by poverty in some cases and greed in others, who are illegally destroying the forest to make way for cattle ranches and coca plants, the key ingredient in cocaine. The result has been a free-for-all in the verdant wildernesses that were previously off-limits thanks to the bloodshed.
The increased cocaine production, along with the rising deforestation, is delivering a one-two punch to Colombia's environment. Making cocaine requires a host of chemicals including sulfuric acid, caustic soda, kerosene and sometimes gasoline or diesel, with the byproducts typically dumped in local waterways.
"There is no doubt that the environment has been the principal victim of peace," says Rocío Rodríguez, head of the Colombian branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "It's a real step backwards and, among other things, will make it difficult for Colombia to achieve its targets for reducing carbon emissions."
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos signed a historic — and controversial — peace deal with the Marxist rebels of the FARC in 2016, turning the page on a brutal insurgency that, according to official figures, had claimed more than 200,000 lives and left more than 5 million as refugees in their own country.
Ivan Briscoe, the Bogota-based Latin America director for the International Crisis Group, says that while the death toll has dropped dramatically since the group laid down its arms, security has become much more complex, with smaller leftist revolutionaries vying with drug cartels, contraband traffickers, organized crime and local chieftains for control of various pockets of the country.
"It's a regrettable truth," he says. "The state set itself some noble goals as part of the peace plan but it is a process and we are just at the start. These illegal economies are very entrenched and what the state has to offer beyond its occasionally coercive presence is not clear or convincing to local populations."
One of the main planks of the peace deal was to grow the number of small-scale farmers across the country, who would supply both the Colombian and export markets. But that plan is expected to take up to 15 years and cost $1 billion annually.
It now appears to be under threat from incoming President Iván Duque, a conservative who takes office in August and has vowed to renegotiate the peace deal, which he regards as too favorable to the FARC.
"There aren't a lot of votes in these areas," adds Briscoe, emphasizing how sparsely populated are the remote, rural areas once occupied by the rebels. "If this plan is dropped or emasculated then we could actually see an upsurge in these problems."
In 2017, Colombia lost 425,000 hectares (1.05 million acres) of forest cover, according to a University of Maryland study released last month through Global Forest Watch, a portal for the World Resources Institute. Worryingly, that was a 46 percent increase from the 2016 figure and more than double the average annual loss from 2001 to 2015.
That could mean the disappearance of all kinds of species of flora and fauna from tropical rainforests, which are widely acknowledged as the world's most biodiverse ecosystem. It also potentially means the dumping of enormous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; tropical rainforests can warehouse up to 250 tons of carbon per hectare.
A new White House report has also found that the area dedicated to coca production in Colombia has boomed to 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres), its highest level since it began keeping records more than two decades ago. That is an 11 percent increase on the 2016 figure. The report also concluded that annual cocaine production in the South American nation had risen even more, by 19 percent, from 772 to 921 metric tons.
That worries law enforcement and public health officials in the United States. Only three nations produce cocaine in significant quantities. But most of the production from Bolivia and Peru is consumed in South America, Europe and Asia, whereas Colombia's typically end up on U.S. streets, from San Diego to Boston.
According to the White House, the number of new cocaine users has risen by 81 percent since 2013 while overdose deaths have doubled.
The Colombian government has not lined up the resources and personnel to establish an official presence in the areas abandoned by the FARC, says Uriel Gonzalo Murcia, of the Amazon Scientific Research Institute of Columbia (SINCHI).
"The rules of coexistence during the conflict were different," adds Murcia. "The incentives have changed and so have the risks. What is needed is for the government to develop alternatives to cattle ranching, which is not environmentally sustainable anyway, and coca, which is illegal. Until "campesinos" (peasant farmers) can earn a decent living in other ways then of course they will resort to those two."
For Murcia, that means developing an ecologically friendly timber industry. That could be complemented by the forest-compatible production of local tropical fruits such as acai — which is massively popular in neighboring Brazil —seje and canangucha.
But that will likely require strong support from the government. It remains to be seen whether President Duque will be willing to make that commitment once he is in power and no longer on the campaign trail.