Over the past 15 years of armed conflict and social upheaval in Colombia, production of illicit narcotics crops has skyrocketed. Now a study documents that this growth is contributing greatly to deforestation in Colombia and may threaten its native bird populations.
Colombia's forests have become ground zero in one of the world's most brutal civil wars. Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries both oversee the cultivation of coca (for cocaine) and poppies (for opium), while the government, with funding and encouragement from the United States, sprays crops with herbicides from the air. As disastrous as these events have been for people, some scientists have also voiced concern about the country's rich forests and wildlife. When data became available to address the question, María Álvarez, a Colombian Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York City, leapt at the chance.
Álvarez took geographical data on illicit crop production, forest cover, and bird species and created overlying maps. In the August issue of Conservation Biology, she concludes that roughly half of Colombia's deforestation is due to narcotics agriculture. Some of these regions, such as the southern Andes and certain isolated mountain ranges in the north, are also home to high numbers of endemic and threatened bird species, she finds. Forests are also rapidly making way for illicit crops in the country's Amazonian region, but this area is less important for rare birds.
The paper "provides the first clear indication of where conservationists should focus," says ornithologist Jon Fjeldså of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, whose bird data were used in the research. He says farmers trying to hide forbidden crops often go deep into forests, including national parks, fragmenting the habitats that threatened species depend on. He agrees with Álvarez that aerial eradication only makes them more likely to do so and "has been a big failure."