PUERTO ARTURO, Colombia - Cocaine is killing the great nature parks of Colombia.
Government spraying of coca plant killer is driving growers and traffickers out of their usual territory into national parks where spraying is banned. Here they are burning thousands of acres of virgin rain forest and poisoning rivers with chemicals.
Now the government faces a painful dilemma: to spray weedkiller would be devastating, but the impact of coca-growing is increasingly destructive. The question is, which is worse?
Colombia is home to about 15 percent of all the world's plant species and one of its most diverse arrays of amphibians, mammals and birds. Dozens of species that populate its jungles and Andes mountains exist nowhere else on the planet. One of the richest is the Sierra Macarena National Park, where monkeys clamber across the jungle canopy and big cats prowl.
But Sierra Macarena is most threatened by cocaine. A recent flight over part of its 1.6-million acres revealed a trail of ugly gashes and charred trunks of trees felled by coca planters. The intruders also have built dozens of makeshift drug labs in the park and in the nearby village of Puerto Arturo, bringing in tons of gasoline, cement, hydrochloric acid and other toxic chemicals to process the coca leaves into cocaine. All of it pollutes the rivers and soil.
The amount of acreage under coca cultivation has more than tripled to 9,600 acres since 2003, according to the Counternarcotics Police. Overall, 28,000 acres are being cultivated in Colombia's 49 national parks, compared with 11,000 acres only three years ago. But the destruction is worse than the figures would indicate; for every acre of coca planted, an average of three acres are torn down.
"The national parks offer perfect havens for traffickers," police Col. Henry Gamboa said as his Black Hawk helicopter swooped over a cocaine lab in the Sierra Macarena. "There is virtually nothing we can do about it. Our hands are tied."
The government says it is studying whether to lift the ban on spraying. If it doesn't, growers are bound to plant more crops in the reserves. But Indian tribes and environmental advocates contend that spraying would be harmful to the animals and their surroundings.
The United States has provided billions of dollars over the past five years for spraying Colombian drug fields, a move the United Nations says helped reduced overall cocaine production in Colombia last year by 13 percent.
Environmentalists insist the solution is for government workers to destroy the crops with machetes - a method that has worked in mountainous areas beyond the spray planes' reach.