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Colombia’s president says cocaine users culpable in Amazon destruction

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Colombia’s president has hit out at western cocaine users who preach environmentalism while consuming a recreational drug whose production is one of the biggest causes of Amazon deforestation.

“In order to produce one hectare of coca, almost two hectares of tropical jungle are destroyed in Colombia,” President Iván Duque told the Financial Times in an interview at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

“You meet cocaine users in other countries who are very avid and very talkative when speaking in favour of the environment. But they don’t realise that when they consume [cocaine] they’re doing great damage to the environment.”

About 143,000 hectares of Colombia are dedicated to growing coca leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine production, according to UN figures. Coca cultivation has increased in national parks and indigenous reserves, despite government efforts to eradicate the illicit crop.

Large quantities of petrol are used in cocaine production, along with cement, hydrochloric acid and toxic solvents such as ether and acetone.

Duque said that only when visiting illegal cocaine labs in the jungle raided by the authorities did “you realise the terrible environmental damage because all the chemicals from the processing end up being dumped into the soil of the tropical forest”.

A Colombian farmer processes coca leaves to make cocaine base paste © Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

With the leaders of Latin America’s two biggest nations, Brazil and Mexico, skipping COP26 amid heavy criticism of their environmental records, Colombia is seeking to take advantage by promoting itself as a green leader in the region.

Although deforestation in Colombia rose slightly in 2020, it fell by a third in the first half of this year, Duque said. He was one of more than 100 signatories to an international pledge this week to eliminate it completely by 2030.

Colombia plans to designate almost a third of its territory as protected areas by next year and has toughened greenhouse gas emission targets, pledging a reduction of 51 per cent by 2030.

Production of wind and solar energy has increased, though it still represents only a fraction of the electricity production in a country that remains a leading oil and coal producer.

Bram Ebus, author of a report on Colombia’s deforestation for the International Crisis Group, said Duque’s promises to halt tree loss were unrealistic unless policies were changed and enforcement stepped up. His report said that between 1998 and 2012, about 608,000 hectares of forest were cut down in Colombia for coca plantations.

“They need better traceability of commodities from deforested areas, they need to rethink law enforcement strategies that have overly focused on going after the people with the chainsaws in their hands rather than the finances of deforestation — the white collar criminals,” he said.

Duque received a warm reception in Glasgow, where host prime minister Boris Johnson singled him out for praise, but at home he has struggled to build support in Congress or win over the public.

Despite a strong recovery from last year’s coronavirus-induced recession, critics have lambasted him for a heavy handed police response to anti government protests, a bungled tax reform, the stalled implementation of a 2016 peace accord with Marxist guerrillas, and for presiding over increasing violence and crime. Colombia this year lost its coveted investment-grade status from rating agencies worried about a persistent fiscal deficit.

Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera, a professor of leadership at Externado de Colombia University in Bogotá, said Duque’s presidency “amounted to four lost years for Colombia”. He added: “We’ve gone backwards on security, poverty and inequality”.

The president contests such criticism, saying his government has launched the country’s biggest-ever social programme in response to the pandemic.

However, the protests and rising inequality have helped to propel the leftwing former guerrilla leader Gustavo Petro to a strong poll lead ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Term limits prevent Duque from running again but he bristles at the suggestion that his legacy might be to open the door for the election of the country’s first leftwing president, saying neighbouring Venezuela offered a powerful warning.

“The Colombian people are more conscious than anyone of the desolation and tragedy which 21st century socialism has brought to Venezuela,” he said. “I’m certain the Colombian people will not fall into that model.”

Additional reporting by Gideon Long in Bogotá

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