How Cocaine Production Destroys the Environment and Exacerbates Climate Change

The business of cocaine production is nothing short of environmentally devastating.

By Alex Dew

If you’ve ever bought cocaine, a few fleeting concerns probably crossed your mind before racking up your first line: maybe there was the momentary guilt of doing something you know you’re not supposed to, of breaking the law, of spending money. Maybe you briefly worried about destroying your nose or getting addicted. Millennials are known for being ethical consumers, people who spend extra for fair trade coffee and renounce palm oil to save the orangutans and commit to Amazon detoxes. But when it comes to cocaine use, most users never consider what is perhaps the greatest cost of their weekend habit: the vast deforestation and resulting carbon emissions that result from cocaine production. According to The Guardian, forty-three square feet of the rainforest, an area about the size of a king-size bed, are destroyed for every gram of cocaine produced. 

Cocaine looks pretty far from natural when it arrives at the consumer, but it comes from the earth in the form of the coca plant. The environmental devastation starts from the very beginning of the process, when precious rainforests are cleared for grow operations. Losing these rainforests means losing one of the earth’s greatest’s assets for reducing carbon emissions and limiting global warming, because trees process carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Most cocaine production happens in the Central and South American rainforests famous for their ability to pump out oxygen and provide homes for a wider range of plant and animal species than anywhere else in the world. It is estimated that coca farmers clear up to 300,000 hectares of the Colombian rainforest every year — over 560,000 football fields. 

Additionally, the fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and clearing chemicals used by coca farmers are leached into the soil and watersheds. In one year in Colombia, they use and release 81,000 tons of these chemicals into the surrounding environment. While certainly harmful, the impact of leached fertilizers and insecticides is somewhat mitigated by the area’s heavy rainfall and pales in comparison to that of deforestation. 

The devastation of the Amazonian-Andean rainforests doesn’t just hurt Central and South America, it has worldwide implications. The Amazon’s trees absorb two billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, about 5% of the world’s total carbon emissions, making them crucial to the effort to delay climate change. Not only does the loss of these trees represent a decreased capacity of the earth to process carbon emissions, but when the trees are cleared, regardless of which method is used, they release the carbon they’ve stored up into the atmosphere. The Rainforest Alliance reports that the act of deforestation contributes to 10% of worldwide carbon emissions on its own. 

Surprisingly, despite the fact that rainforests harbor a plethora of plant life, the soil in the rainforest is extremely nutrient-poor, making it a challenging environment for growing just about anything. The nutrients are contained in the trees themselves, and when they are destroyed, the soil is virtually “useless,” according to the Rainforest Alliance. Seeking more fertile soil, farmers cultivating coca and other crops often move onto a new patch of land to clear. Reforesting these areas is just as challenging as cultivating crops on it. The Rainforest Alliance says that the effect of rainforest deforestation for agricultural purposes is three-fold: the earth loses a “crucial ally” for preventing carbon emissions from reaching the atmosphere, additional carbon emissions are produced when the trees are felled, and the resulting crop or livestock cultivation creates even more pollution. The combined effect is responsible for 25% of worldwide carbon emissions, with cocaine production as a major contributor at all three stages.

Sadly, the situation does not seem to be getting any better; as Central and South American governments crackdown on cocaine production, producers are looking to increasingly remote locations for cultivation. According to Dazed Digital, cocaine production causes $214.6 million worth of damage to the rainforest each year, a price that is double most of the region’s allocated conservation budgets. To add insult to injury, cocaine producers often launder money through legal agriculture and ranching businesses, which are also major contributors to deforestation and climate change.

For this reason, many experts believe that curbing cocaine production and saving the rainforest must happen in tandem. “You cannot do drug control policy and conservation policy separately. You have to do them in harmony,” says Bernardo Aguilar-González, a head researcher at the Fundación Neotrópica, a Costa Rican conservation organization. Aguilar-González cites American cocaine users as a major cause of the problem, and says that solving the issue will come down to “investing in community land rights and participatory governance in protected areas.” But these Americans also can be a potential catalyst for the solution. He hopes that coverage of cocaine’s devastating effect on the environment will lead to a reduction in American users and that giving the indigenous people, who are often displaced from their ancestral homes by traffickers via violence and intimidation, greater control over their land will help to push production out of the area.

Not only does cocaine production cost the environment dearly, but it racks up a large body count. Notoriously violent “Narcos” were responsible for enough deaths to fill a football stadium between 2007 and 2012 in Mexico alone, murdering over 90,000 people. Traffickers murder anyone who stands in the way of their money, and they often protect their production operations with IEDs. When they move on to more fertile land, the IEDs are left behind, and they were responsible for killing 4,400 people to date in 2005. The number is surely higher now. Many sources, such as The Guardian, state that, for every gram of cocaine snorted in the US or Great Britain, at least one person in South America loses their life. 

So the price of cocaine is paid in blood and environmental degradation. “When [people] use cocaine, aside from putting their own lives at risk, they are feeding an industry which routinely uses death, violence and destruction in its production process,’ said Tony Saggers, head of the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency Drugs Threat. The governments of Central and South America can fight traffickers for decades, but the problem will only be solved when the demand for cocaine from wealthy countries decreases. So the next time you want to party extra hard, ask yourself whether one yacked out night is worth damaging the environment and contributing to human suffering.

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