Environmental Degradation in the Amazon Basin

by Rodrigo Velaidez, agronomist and researcher, San Vicente de Caguán,

Excerpts from remarks delivered at the seminar “Counternarcotics Policy and Prospects for Peace: Eradication and Alternative Development in Southern Colombia,” organized by the George Washington University and the Washington Office on Latin America, October 29, 1999. For the complete record of the seminar, contact WOLA at 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, #200, Washington, DC 20009, (202) 797-2171 (phone), (202) 797-2172 (fax).


I would like to thank the organizations that have coordinated this event for giving me a chance, as a resident of the Colombian Amazon, to present a situation that is often ignored or distorted in my own country and elsewhere. This study was done in the Amazon region of Colombia in a municipality called Cartagena de Chairá. The Amazon region has particular characteristics that make it unique among ecosystems. In South America, the most special characteristic of the Amazon region is bio-diversity that finds expression in a system of permanent recycling of organic matter that one finds in the Amazon forest that regenerates the soils and allows for the survival of the ecosystem in this region. This bio-diversity is represented in an environmental supply that has not been studied in depth which, at some time in the future, may be able to provide important elements for the development of humankind. The objective of the study was to determine the relationship between, or make a comparison between, the environmental impact of the productive cycle of coca leaf and the environmental impact of aerial fumigation using glyphosate. In Colombia, the peasant communities traditionally use a slash-and-burn technique to begin productive processes – whether it is basic grains or food crops, like corn or manioc, or illicit crops, such as coca. To grow coca and for other intensive uses of the land, such as pasture for grazing areas, the idea is to completely raze all biological residuals so as to be able to increase crop density. This is also related to the way in which crops, both legal and illicit, are managed. In the case of the coca crop, as you can see, the peasants use very rudimentary tools.

Coca cultivation in our country, in the initial stages, is generally associated with basic food crops such as corn, manioc and plantain. At the end of a period of time, usually starting the second year, mono-production of coca begins as the basic form of production for these small producers. Unfortunately, the productive cycle of coca, like many agricultural initiatives in our country, is based on the principles of the Green Revolution. This entails using a large amount of agro-chemicals and external inputs, homogenizing seeds, and high crop densities. This particular feature of the coca crop – the intensive use of agro-chemicals – may be the main reason for the environmental degradation caused by coca production.

The methods of coca production lead to contamination of the water and soil, which results in the severe deterioration of the productive capacity of these soils. After adapting the land to the coca crop and the use of agro-chemicals, the peasants begin a simple process. They collect the leaf, chop it up, and add a basic substance to the coca. Then gasoline is poured into barrels; this is what extracts the alkaloid. Then, through a quick and easy effort, it is cut, which is to say there is a precipitation of a substance with a basic element extracting the alkaloid from the sulphuric acid or gasoline. This is what is commonly sold, the paste. In this process there are two byproducts, one of which is a mix of traces of cement and alkaloid. Generally it is not properly handled and this also contributes to the contamination of water and soils. The other byproduct is the cocaza, which is the mash, or pressed leaf, of the coca; it is being studied as a possible organic fertilizer for crops.

Turning now to the impact of fumigation, we found the following. First of all, the dramatic conditions of the Amazon, especially the turbulent air conditions that one finds at 20 meters up, do not allow for effective fumigation. These air currents displace the spray of the aerial fumigation and cause truly serious damage in the area around the coca fields. Here we have a view of how small coca growers organize their crops. They have their coca fields and then they have their basic food crops, corn, manioc, plantain. It is not possible for the fumigation process to distinguish among the plant species and all the plants are fumigated. Generally, the species cultivated for food are the most susceptible. The coca is quite resistant in relation to plant species such as the plantain, some fruits, such as the papaya tree, and perennial crops such as rubber. Fumigation has had an extremely grave impact because, not only does it destroy the plant, it’s also destroying the livelihood of persons who have been able to become part of alternative development efforts. Rubber trees are usually tapped for the first time about six to seven years after they are planted. There is also an indirect impact on the cattle, caused by the consumption of pasture that has been affected by fumigation; as you can see, there is no justification for spraying areas covered by pasture, where there is no coca production. In these areas, cattle that have eaten from the contaminated pastures are not only stunted, they have also had diseases such as spontaneous abortion. This slide was taken just before fumigation. This was two months ago. This is the experience of a peasant family that had fruit and vegetable crops, including tomatoes. You can see how two months later, through intensive, indiscriminate fumigation, the entire plantation was affected, and likewise the possibility of a family growing a crop and making a living from a crop other than coca leaf. One of the most important effects is the increasing impact on the soil. There are mixes of lichen and fungi in the soil that make it relatively impenetrable, eliminating its ability to absorb water, or to have exchange within the soil. Another of the impacts on the Amazon is that strategic ecosystems are being affected. One Amazonian species, the camanchales, occurs intensely in soils that contain a large amount of water: Their major property is that they are biological regulators that are niches for the reproduction of various species, and they cleanse the waters. They are found along streams and other waterways. They have been massively impacted and we believe that in such significant Amazonian ecosystems there is a breakdown in the entire chain of natural growth of all the species in these regions. There is no doubt that the peasants in these regions have been able to establish and have a will to put forth proposals other than coca monoculture. One of these, supported mainly by actors such as the Catholic church, is trying to plant other crops, particularly rubber, where coca is presently being grown.

To conclude, we believe that this policy of fumigation in the Amazon basin should be redefined. We think that having the permanent and ongoing participation and organization of the peasants is essential for developing proposals. As general conclusions, I would say the following. Aerial fumigation intensifies the environmental impact already being caused by the production cycle of coca, which has a detriment effect on water, soil and animals. In addition, it stimulates the displacement of families involved in production, or it leads these families to seek out new forms of production in the same region. Finally, by extension, it affects the primary forests, driving away the fauna and eliminating valuable species that might possibly have a future impact on production in these areas.

The crops impact the areas, with a clear detrimental impact on the ecosystem. Thank you very much.



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