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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.
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