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Environmental Destruction

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America’s Drug War Impacting Columbia Farmers


By James Donahue

December 2004


Some time back I wrote a piece about protests by Columbian farmers against a plan by the U. S. and Columbian governments, to apply a powerful herbicide by aerial application over thousands of acres of coca fields.


The story has remained on hold . . . mostly because of the press of political and esoteric matters that demanded the space. And it is just as well because the issue seems to have been mysteriously resolved.


It seems that since the public demonstrations, that drew over 5,000 farmers to the village of Guachaca, located 430 miles north of Bogata, many of the coca crops in the fields have proven themselves mysteriously resistant to the herbicides.


Obviously the US government ignored the pleas of poor Columbian farmers who depended on these crops for their meager living. We were so intent on carrying out our “drug war” that we failed to listen to the arguments of the farmers.


Not only were the farmers depending on their crops to live, they worried that the herbicides also threatened to kill legal crops, impair the health of the people that breathed the chemical, and said the spraying also affected natural flora and fauna.


Authorities said they wanted to eradicate an estimated 24,700 acres of coca, a plant used in the manufacture of cocaine, and stop its production before it has a chance of being sold in the United States.


The opposition group had a good argument. The use of chemical herbicides has always been a bad idea. Americans are just now learning that chemicals applied to our own farm fields have polluted crops and gotten into the food chain, causing a variety of health problems ranging from liver problems and cancers, to allergies and birth defects. The Columbian farmers may be poor, but they understand the dangers associated with aerial spraying of toxic chemicals on their farms.


And while we agree that cocaine is a brain damaging, emotion distorting, and dangerous recreational drug, it is refined from a plant that has had a religious history among the tribes of South America and other parts of the world where it naturally grows. Thus we have a dilemma.


For thousands of years, the leaves of the coca plant were used as a stimulant by the indigenous people of Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina. In the Andes, the natives traditionally carry the coca leaves with them in a woven pouch as they travel or work. Chewing the leaves stimulates them to a productive day. They mix a tiny quantity of ilucta with the coca leaves to soften the astringent flavor and activate the alkaloids in the leaves.

The plant has a religious significance among the natives as well. The Incas had a myth about a promiscuous woman named “Cocomama” who was a goddess of health and joy. When she was cut in pieces by her lovers, the pieces grew into the coca plant.

Coca also was used as an offering to the Sun, and to produce smoke at the great sacrifices. The priests chewed it during the performance of religious ceremonies. The plant still is held in superstitious veneration among the Peruvians. The miners of Cerro de Pasco believe that chewing and spitting the leaves on the veins of ore will make their work go easier.

America’s ugly drug war, however, is reaching its fingers around the world and into this remote part of the world. It is an immoral act by our government to destroy things that are sacred to others, just because we do not agree with their way of life.

That we have learned how to refine the tiny amount of alkaloid, or stimulant, found on the leaf of the plant and make a powerful narcotic out of it, does not destroy the value of the plant.

The religious moralists use a basic rule of thumb . . . if even chewing the leaf gives pleasure it must be sin. That is wrong and most people know it.

Something the drug war bandits didn’t consider is genetic engineering. It seems that a few major cocoa growers anticipated the assault on their crops and used some of the genetic crossing developed by big corporations like Monsanto to develop cocoa plants that are herbicide resistant!

If Monsanto can make corn, soybeans, sugar beets and wheat that can resist Roundup, certainly the master growers that grow super cocoa crops for cocaine production can do the same thing. And they seem to have done it.

How do I stand on this interesting new development? While I don’t condone the use of dangerous drugs like cocaine, I must cast a smile at the ingenuity of the farmers caught in the crossfire of this war.

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