Peruvian Coca FarmingPeruvian anti-drug police seized 58 kilograms of cocaine, destined for Belgium, at the port of Paita, Peru in May 2023. The cocaine packages had the Nazi flag and the blocks had the imprint of the name “Hitler.” In March 2023, Peruvian authorities discovered 2.3 tonnes of cocaine that were to undergo transport to Turkey.

Cocaine from Peru goes to South American countries for domestic consumption or to further destinations such as Asia, Europe and the United States (U.S.) that have a high demand for the drug. Peru is the second largest producer of cocaine and cultivator of the coca leaf, the primary ingredient in cocaine, in the world, according to The Guardian. In 2021, Peru produced 785 metric tons of cocaine and cultivated 84,400 hectares.

Peruvian coca farming majorly contributes to increased deforestation rates of the Peruvian Amazon, the prevalence of child labor and poverty in rural areas. Several U.S. government programs are continuously collaborating with the Peruvian government to implement strategies to eradicate illicit coca, create alternative development projects, ban illegal narcotics and minimize domestic drug abuse.

Deforestation and Indigenous Communities

Illegal coca production has spread across the Peruvian Amazon during the pandemic due to minimal state presence. The center of the illegal drug trade in Peru is the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM). The VRAEM and several other parts of the forest are being “felled and burned” to make space for coca fields, contributing to deforestation. Not only is the number of illicit coca farms expanding, but the proliferation of laboratories converting coca leaves into cocaine and the construction of clandestine airstrips for drug trafficking are posing significant environmental threats. As a result, these activities contribute to the degradation of the natural habitat and ecosystems in the Amazon region. In addition, deforestation of the Amazon exacerbates climate change by releasing an increased amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to a rise in the temperature of the Earth’s surface.

Peruvian coca farming is negatively impacting the hundreds of indigenous communities who live in the Amazon. The expansion of coca farming leads to the encroachment of ancestral indigenous lands which can result in the displacement of entire communities. The expansion of coca production also places community members at heightened vulnerability, increasing the risk of being forcibly recruited into the production process and becoming addicted to cocaine. Indigenous leaders and environmental activists have become targets of violence for openly opposing drug trafficking. Almost 20 local leaders have been killed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Insight Crime.

How Coca Farming Targets Children

Many families who cultivate coca in Peru use child labor because children are too young for prosecution for illicit activity. In areas where coca production rises, there is a corresponding increase in the use of labor in those areas. According to Maria Sviatschi, when children are part of illegal labor markets, they acquire industry-specific skills at an early age. This often puts the children on “a criminal life path” in the cocaine industry. When these children grow up, they are 30% more likely to face imprisonment for violent and drug-related crimes. They are also 30% more likely to have lower earnings, consequently increasing poverty rates in Peru.

Illicit Coca Eradication and Poverty Reduction Efforts

During the pandemic, the national poverty rate increased to 30.1%. The U.S. The Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) is collaborating with the Peruvian government and anti-drug police to eradicate illicit coca activities. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crim (UNODC) has worked with the Peruvian government and farmers for decades to provide alternative development opportunities to decrease poverty rates and boost economic growth through legal avenues. The project targets “endemic coca-producing” areas where there are high poverty rates.

Looking Ahead

Collaborative efforts between the Peruvian government, the U.S. and international organizations are making strides toward eradicating illicit coca activities and reducing poverty. Programs focused on alternative development and poverty reduction are providing opportunities for communities previously involved in Peruvian coca farming to pursue legal avenues of economic growth. By addressing the root causes of illicit coca production, these initiatives aim to contribute to the preservation of the environment and the well-being of indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon.

– Surya Patil
Photo: Flickr