Colombia Calls Cocaine Users "Predators Of The Rain Forest"

If you're into charlie, snow, or a few lines of snort, Colombia's Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón has a message for you: your cocaine use is a "predator of the rain forest" and a serious threat to human life.

"Every user that snorts a gram of cocaine kills 4.4 square meters of rain forest," Calderón told the Huffington Post in an interview this week. According to Calderón, 300,000 hectares of tropical rain forest are destroyed each year to make way for coca plants and the industrial chemicals needed to turn them into a value-added product.

For decades Colombia has cultivated the bulk of the world's cocaine and the latest UN figures estimate the country's share of global production at more than 60 percent. The vast majority of the coke bought and sold in the US originates in Colombia, where the clearing of land for coca crops has had a devastating impact on one of world's most bio-diverse areas.

Since the election of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe in 2002, Colombia's government has stepped up efforts to tackle the trade, preventing the sale of an estimated 377 tons of cocaine and wiping about 14 billion off global coke profits, according to the Anti-Narcotics Police.

In an attempt to highlight the environmental impacts of coke use, Calderón's office launched the Shared Responsibility project, designed to encourage consumer countries to participate in the fight against coca production.

Cocaine use in the US has decreased dramatically since the peaks of the 1990s with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reporting a further drop in the number of first time users to 906,000 people in 2007 from 977,000 in 2006.

But these figures are still significant when the scale of the environmental impact is considered and as 29-year-old former user Chris from LA argues, coke use is still an integral part of the party culture in big US cities.

Chris stopped taking coke more than a year ago but at its peak, his habit had him using two to three times every week. "It's pretty easy to get hold of... it's everywhere out here," he said.

While he was using, Chris said he was casually aware of other environmental issues--he recycled and made an effort to avoid using plastic or disposable paper and polystyrene products. According to Calderón, this is typical of the average coke user, who is likely to be a young, well-educated professional with an ironic interest in the benefits of going green.

"Cocaine use requires a disposable income and during the week many users drive hybrid cars and recycle. Then, on the weekend, he or she destroys everything they believe in," Calderón said.

Colombia's government argues that coke users do more than just destroy the environment. According to Calderón they also help fuel the violent insurgencies that have resulted in the kidnapping, displacement and deaths of thousands of Colombian civilians.

The sprawling jungle in the south of Colombia's Córdoba department is one of many fluid front lines in the government's fight against narco-trafficking rebel groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The nearby town of Caucasia is home to one of the largest anti-narcotics operations in northern Colombia and the few farming families working remote patches of land in southern Córdoba are heavily involved in the cocaine trade.

The area seems devoid of the basic infrastructure usually associated with high-income crops and by air, no roads are visible. Just a few homesteads are scattered around small patches of cleared vegetation, a sign of cocaine cultivation and the inevitable presence of armed groups.

Thousands of hectares of coca are produced here, despite attempts by anti-narcotics troops to dramatically reduce both the cultivation of coca and the sale of crops to groups like the FARC.

"Illegal armed groups in Colombia are financed in large part by trafficking cocaine. These same groups terrorize the civilian population by planting landmines, kidnapping, and, in some parts of the country, committing murders," Vice President Calderón said.

Targeted killings are rare in southern Córdoba but according to Colonel Santamaria, who heads Caucasia's anti-narcotics teams, troops are engaged in "weekly low-level battles" with the FARC and a number of civilians and eradication workers have been injured by landmines and small explosions.

"Here the rebels cause many problems. People are losing their legs from mines and the FARC are earning money from taxes on the drug trade," Santamaria said.

The FARC's ability to earn an estimated $300 million a year from cocaine trafficking has led the Colombian government to accuse users of financing the group's activities, including the kidnapping of former hostage and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Despite the efforts of Colonel Santamaria's troops, the Colombian government has been unable to seize control of the trade, as farmers use increasingly remote jungle areas to cultivate cocaine crops at a rate hard to tackle with manual eradication and crop substitution efforts.

This has led Vice President Calderón to travel to a number of consumer countries, conducting interviews with reporters and urging politicians to help publicize the impacts of the coke trade and encourage the environmentally conscious to stop using.

Whether or not these efforts will be successful in Europe, where cocaine use has skyrocketed in recent years, remains to be seen but according to Chris, Calderón's "startling" statistics will not be enough to dissuade users in the US.

"Cocaine is a vain drug... and I think [knowledge of the impacts] isn't enough to stop people from using."