Environment and drug trafficking
Licit and illicit cultivation
Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing
Author: L. OSORIO BRYSON
Pages: 27 to 29
Creation Date: 1992/01/01
Illicit drug trafficking is a very complex matter, not only because it causes serious and pernicious problems in the socioeconomic sphere, but because drug-taking can lead to personal degradation. To this situation, lamentable enough in itself, must be added the immense ecological and environmental damage, which presents grave and serious dangers for the planet.
Illegal cultivation of the coca leaf is conducted on such a scale that it has devastating effects on the soil, encouraging deforestation and desertification. The situation is further aggravated by the way in which coca growers use agrochemicals without any technical expertise to increase the harvest or kill weeds, thus affecting agrobiological resources. The proper use of such chemicals requires a series of scientific tests and studies in the appropriate areas to assess the likelihood of their having harmful effects. Their use requires a technology and an infrastructure which will rule out the danger that, because of the characteristics of the terrain in which the coca is grown (high forest), they will more easily contaminate both the soil and ultimately people.
There are particular features which distinguish licit cultivation for traditional use and export from illicit cultivation for the drug traffic. In the case of licit cultivation, the plants are sown in deep pits, where they can develop better without causing soil erosion. Illicit growers, on the other hand, take advantage of the plants' hardiness to cultivate them on sloping ground, retreating to this part of the high forest for the following reasons:
For better concealment so as not to be caught. Access to this inhospitable area is difficult, and the plantations can be better concealed in the thick forest;
The higher the site, the better the quality and quantity of alkaloid. For example, at 3,000 metres above sea level, the coca plant reaches over 3 metres in height and contains more than 1 per cent of alkaloid; at 2,000 metres, it grows 2 metres high and has 0.80 per cent of alkaloid; and at 1,000 metres, it is 1 metre high with 0.70 per cent of alkaloid, and so on as it comes down to the low forest, where it grows to 0.50 metres and has 0.20 per cent of alkaloid, a relatively low figure.
As soon as the growers scent any danger, they abandon the site, and go off to sow their crop elsewhere, destroying the forest as they go.
The flora of Peru is one of the richest in the world, and many of the species are to be found only in forest areas where coca is planted. Many tree species grow within those regions, some of which have commercial potential which is not being properly utilized because of the illicit cultivation of the coca plant. The whole situation is a national tragedy in itself, because it involves the burning of millions of cubic metres of wood every year, and a lack of pasture for flocks to graze on.
To sum up, the main damage done by illicit coca growers is through clearing of vegetation, with destruction of forests and agricultural land, the intensification of erosion, the extinction of plant and animal species and the pollution of the air and water.
In the process of manufacturing the drugs (basic coca paste, refined basic coca paste, and cocaine hydrochlorate), great quantities of essential chemicals are required, such as the following:
Acids.Sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and nitric acid;
Solvents. Ethyl and sulphuric ether, acetone, toluene, methyl- ethyl-ketone and kerosine;
Bases. Sodium and calcium carbonate, sodium and potassium hydroxide and ammonia;.
Oxidizers. Potassium permanganate.
Many of these chemicals are highly toxic, and some can also cause explosions and fire (ether and acetone). They thus represent a threat to health. Exhaustive monitoring of some of the chemicals most commonly used to produce the drug from the coca leaf yielded the following figures for the amounts diverted to illicit uses between 1985 and 1988: sulphuric acid - 387,732,829 kilograms; hydrochloric acid - 277,074,329 kilograms; sodium carbonate - 106,339,212 kilograms and acetone - 5,569,329 kilograms.
When these toxins are discarded, they are absorbed and ingested. They have toxic effects on men and animals, destroying fertile land, poisoning food crops and fish, and polluting water used for irrigation and drinking.
The problem of illicit drug trafficking as it affects the environment has to be approached comprehensively on a scientific basis, so that corrective measures can be maintained or introduced. As a matter of urgency, programmes are needed to alert, inform and educate the national and international community, in order to create a collective awareness of the need to reject drugs. As time passes, although efforts are being made to find substitutes for illicit crops and promote voluntary eradication, the results have been disappointing and attempts to introduce substitute crops unsuccessful because of such factors as corruption, the growth of subversion in the areas affected and a lack of economic support.
To combat these problems effectively, all persons of good will must come together in an effort to find alternative methods of eliminating illicit coca growing, combined with strict monitoring of the diversion of essential chemicals, thereby at least partly curbing environmental pollution and the rise in drug consumption. This process will entail a commitment by all parties to the search for a comprehensive solution through development programmes to assist the affected areas.