The ‘Real’ Dark Side of Cocaine

Most people know about the harms that drug consumption, especially cocaine or other hard drugs, have over the society, destroying lives and tearing families apart. This side of the picture is best known. In many schools students are taught not to consume hard drugs because of the effects these can have over their lives and families. However, not too much attention is given to the effects cocaine can have over the lives, families and societies of the people who are involved in the production of this drug.  

According to the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), all of the world’s cocaine is produced in three countries, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and even though cocaine is also consumed there, virtually all of the production is exported to North America and Europe, where 90% of world cocaine is consumed. The reason for such a strange distribution is simple: high demand and high prices. However, the harmful effects of this drug are bigger in the countries producing it than in the countries consuming it.

The base of cocaine is the coca leaf. However, the coca leaf in its natural state is not a drug. Coca is a leaf that has been consumed by some South American indigenous groups for many centuries. In countries like Bolivia, coca consumption is normal among many layers of society and some of its derived products, such as coca tea is even more popular. Though, coca is legal in Bolivia, coca crops are much bigger than the needs of the traditional consumption and legal demand, the surplus of the production is diverted into cocaine production.

Many peasants in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia grow coca because they do not have another alternative to sustain their families. It is possible to harvest coca three or four times a year and there is a high demand for the product. The size of coca crops, which is bigger than what is needed for traditional consumption, have a negative impact on the environment. The first negative impact is deforestation. According to the UNODC, deforestation due to coca cultivation has reached close to 700,000- hectares since the 1970s.

Another impact of coca leaf crops is soil erosion, which reduces land productivity and contributes with the pollution of adjacent watercourses. Coca can be harvested up to 4 times a year, which results in the intensive use of the soil. Furthermore, coca grows in a highly humid, mountainous area of the subtropical forest located between 500 and 2000 meters above sea level, which is the most fragile region of the jungle.

The fourth negative impact, directly related to cocaine production, is water contamination. To produce cocaine, several toxic chemicals are needed to extract the cocaine alkaloids from the coca leaf. Among such chemicals, we can find kerosene, sulfuric acid, quick lime, carbide and even toilet paper. All the factories/laboratories that manufacture cocaine are located in the middle of the jungle and have very poor infrastructure.

Needless to say that they do not have an adequate waste disposals and therefore all these chemicals are dumped into the rivers. For a production of 6,400 tons of cocaine paste in 1986, 57 million liters of kerosene, 32 million liters of sulfuric acid, 16,000 tons of quick lime and 16,000 tons of toilet paper were dumped into the rivers that year, according to UNODC.

Another way of contamination comes from coca leaf eradication. The governments of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, under the direct influence and help of the U.S government, believe that the main way to fight drugs trafficking is to completely eradicate coca crops [1].  As a result, the armies of these countries, with the help of the U.S military, have undertaken a war with coca leaf growers in order to eradicate coca during the last decades.

Eradication is undertaken by two means: one is to physically rip off coca bushes, which means that the army has to go into the field, which has cost many peasants their lives. The other mean is by air fumigation. The problem is that air fumigation does not discriminate between coca crops and others crops (e.g. papaya, banana, yucca, etc.).The chemical instantly kills everything it touches, resulting in the loss of many others crops along with the coca leaf.


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Along with the environmental aspects, cocaine production also have many negatives effects on the society. As stated before, eradication has cost the lives of hundreds of peasants. The way of fighting drugs trafficking has forced the armies of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru to fight its own citizens, which has left a deep scar in society. However, the main problem is the violence that drug trafficking has created.

Drug production is always associated with weapons, violence and murder. The most serious case is Mexico. Even though it is not a producing country, it is the place from which most of the cocaine enters the U.S. In the last years the north of Mexico, due to the presence of drug cartels, has become one of the most dangerous regions of the world, where murders happen every day and where children learn to react in case of a gunfight in school.

However, violence related to drugs is not only a Mexican problem, this a problem of all the countries involved in the chain of production. In my country, Bolivia, the presence of the Mexicans and Colombians drug cartels have increased over the past few years, nowadays, gunfights and murders are becoming more and more common.

This reality is very well represented in Rachel Seifert wining award documentary Cocaine Unwrapped, which shows the crude reality of this world. Cocaine is a business where very few people win, and where millions suffer and get impoverished.

Editorial Note: 

[1] Since 2006 these methods of eradication are no longer practiced in Bolivia. The reason is the accession to power of President Evo Morales, who is the leader of the union of coca leaf growers.

© 2015 – Verrekijkers Magazine  Pedro Inchauste

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