- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

MONZON, Peru Swaths of scarred earth blanket the hillsides of this jungle valley the environmental consequence of a cocaine trade striving to meet demand in the United States and Europe.
Analysts estimate that nearly 6 million acres of Peruvian rain forest have been hacked down in the past three decades to grow coca, a shrub leaf that is the primary source of cocaine. More than 14,800 tons of toxic chemicals are dumped into the Amazon jungle every year as traffickers turn coca into raw cocaine paste.
Poisoned water, soil erosion, landslides and the extinction of plant and wildlife species are the immediate results. In a matter of decades, environmentalists warn, lush tropical valleys such as the Monzon could end up mostly desert.
"We're talking about one of the richest natural ecosystems in the world, and it's being destroyed piece by piece," said Jonathan Jacobson, an environmental specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Peru's capital, Lima.
The Monzon River valley stretches eastward for about 40 miles from the Andes mountains into high jungle that gradually gives way to the vast lowlands of the Amazon rain forest.
Dropping from 6,600 feet to 2,000 feet above sea level, the Monzon sits in a geographical region popularly known as the "eyebrow of the jungle." The varied altitude nourishes a wide range of plant and animal species, making the valley a hotbed for biological diversity.
Since the 1980s, however, the Monzon also has been a hotbed of the drug trade.
In 2001, it produced almost 20 percent of Peru's coca crop. It is the largest coca valley in the Upper Huallaga River region, a network of similar valleys that together constitute the most important drug-producing corridor in Peru.
The characteristics that provide for the Monzon Valley's natural beauty also make it ideal for coca growers.
The river cuts through steep hillsides, which provide well-drained soil best suited for growing coca. Access to the region is difficult, making it hard for police or soldiers to get to the hills, which begin about 200 miles northeast of Lima.
Streams ripple across the dirt road that connects settlements of poor farmers with Tingo Maria, an outpost on the Huallaga River that was a cocaine boom town in the 1980s and 1990s.
Able to have their leaves picked four times a year, coca plants need exclusive use of soil, leading farmers to weed constantly and to overuse pesticides, said Raul Araujo, a forestry engineer at the National University of the Jungle in Tingo Maria.
A plot remains productive for four to 10 years, after which the land is useless, Mr. Araujo said. Farmers then abandon it to slash and burn another patch of forest for cultivation.
"Since they've used a lot of chemicals, the soil gets contaminated and unproductive," he said. "That makes it like a sterile desert, which is why we're talking about 100,000 to 120,000 hectares (250,000 to 300,000 acres) in the Upper Huallaga that are in the process of desertification."
The combination of constant harvesting, weeding and pesticide use on steep plots also results in more soil erosion than occurs with most crops, said Mr. Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy. The government estimates a quarter of deforestation in Peru has been caused by coca cultivation.
Of the country's coca-growing valleys, Monzon shows perhaps the most visible destruction. Patches of brown dirt cover the landscape like a quilt, with clefts where eroded soil has collapsed in landslides.
More damage lies beneath the surface.
Converting coca into cocaine requires soaking the leaves in a toxic soup of chemicals such as sulfuric acid, kerosene and organic solvents to create an intermediate form of raw cocaine paste.
The paste usually is exported from coca-growing valleys to be refined into cocaine elsewhere, leaving behind abandoned "marinating" pits under the jungle canopy. Chemicals seep into the groundwater, eventually contaminating streams and rivers.
People who lived in the Monzon 40 years ago say a net tossed into the river used to haul in a slew of fish. Today, they say, the fish are mostly gone.
Scientists must rely on such anecdotal evidence to estimate the damage because it is too dangerous to conduct comprehensive studies in an area overrun with hostile traffickers.
Most coca farmers in the Monzon valley refuse to acknowledge the crop is hurting the very environment that provides their livelihoods.
In any case, stopping the desperately poor agriculturists from cultivating coca will be difficult as long as there is demand for cocaine in rich countries.
Standing on his coca plot above the rushing Monzon River, Marcelino Ortiz, 52, said coca fetches far more money than any legal crop.
"We're poor people in an underdeveloped country," he said. "And we'll sell coca to anyone who comes to buy it. Who knows where it's headed?"


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