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Latin America Shawn Dispatch


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Coca and the Environment

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The main coca growing countries in South America.
For thousands of years, the leaves of the coca plant have been used medicinally by the native peoples of South America. This sacred plant is believed to help with a wide variety of ailments: from altitude sickness and the common cold to depression. It wasn't until late in the 19th century, however, that the commercial value of this plant was discovered and its derivative, cocaine, was popularized in the industrial world. Today, cocaine is most widely used as a recreational drug, and since it is both physically addictive and very dangerous, nearly every country has outlawed it.

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Peru is the largest producer of the coca plant in the world, and many people here still use it in its raw form, both by chewing the leaves and drinking it in tea. It is completely legal and socially accepted, and you can get a cup of coca maté in almost any restaurant or cafe in the country. Cocaine, however, is definitely not legal. Although most cocaine is manufactured in neighboring Colombia and Bolivia, Peru is the first link in the production chain.

As Peru is an economically disadvantaged country with about a 50% unemployment rate, many peasants have turned to growing coca for cocaine to combat their poverty. All of this coca has led to a number of social and environmental problems, as coca production has many ties to organized crime, and the unsustainable techniques used to grow it harm the land.

Slash and burn agriculture, which involves burning down the rainforest to create arable land, is widely used in the Amazon and is the principal way that coca is grown. Furthermore, the process of harvesting coca plants leaves little biodegradable matter to replenish the soil. As coca depletes the soil of most of its nutrients very rapidly, coca farms have a very short lifespan and new forest must be cleared to continue the process. Through this method, about 350,000 hectares of forest are being destroyed annually to support the coca plant, causing habitat loss, mudslides, and flooding.

The damage is further exacerbated by harsh pesticides and chemicals used to clear the land, and by the process of extracting the essence of coca. The chemicals used in coca refinement - acetone, kerosene, ammonia, sulfuric acid, and potassium permanganate - pollute the water and soil, and because this process is illegal it isn't subject to environmental regulations.

While the Peruvian government has tried to crack down on commercial coca production over the past few years, it has had great difficulties. Progress has been slow, due to the strong ties between coca farmers and armed guerrilla groups like The Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which use the profits from this lucrative business to finance their political dissidence.

Although pressure from North American and European governments to eradicate this crop has been very strong, the economic value of the product, combined with the unwillingness of the people here to give up the coca leaf as an herbal remedy, has made this effort nearly impossible. Unless Peru undergoes a drastic change in its economic and political structure, or people stop using cocaine, the coca plant will continue to be one of Peru's key exports for a long time to come.

Shawn
 

Monica - Waterworld, or the Floating People of the Lake
Kavitha - The Children of the Sacred Lake
Kevin - Banished or Delivered?
Abeja - What Next? A Roller Coaster to the Temple of the Moon?
Team - Coca: Modern Vice or Traditional Power?
Making A Difference - Save the Redwood Forests (and the Coho Salmon, and the Spotted Owl, and All of Us)!!!
 
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