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Drug Trafficking Creeps into Bolivia’s Amazon National Parks

North Yungas Road, Bolivia

Amid the dense wilderness of the Bolivian Amazon lurks the superstructure of a billion-dollar business. Bright-green coca sprouts in clearings, workers sweat in artisanal laboratories, and unmarked Cessnas land and take off again. It is hard to tell from the compacted kilos, but alongside beef, soy, and gold, cocaine is contributing to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. 

“The creation of airstrips and trails, and planting of new coca crops are driving forces that in the medium and long term will further increase deforestation,” said FAN director of research Quintanilla.

It starts with coca. Year after year, the area under coca cultivation in Bolivia continues to grow. According to the US State Department’s 2023 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the country reached 39,700 hectares of coca cultivation in 2021. However, there are significant discrepancies between how much coca the White House estimates is grown in Bolivia, versus numbers from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The monitoring by the UNODC said Bolivia closed 2021 with 30,500 hectares of coca. This represented an increase of 4% compared to 2020, which closed with 29,400 hectares. Around 62% of the area under coca cultivation was in the Yungas region of La Paz, 36% in the Tropic of Cochabamba, and 2% in the North of La Paz. All these areas border the Bolivian Amazon.

In 2022, the country registered 29,900 hectares of coca, a reduction of 1.9% compared to 2021, according to the latest UNODC report. Of those 29,900 hectares, over two-thirds are legal. About 22,000 hectares of permitted coca are grown in the Yungas region and the Tropic of Cochabamba. However, the remaining one-third is illicit, with those 7,900 extra hectares planted in illegally deforested land.

Cheap coca also comes from Peru to be processed in the Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando, according to Iván Paredes, an environmental journalist based in La Paz. Often though, the product arrives already processed, either as coca paste or cocaine base requiring further refining in laboratories, or as cocaine hydrochloride awaiting re-export.

Both scenarios require illegal airstrips. Hacked out of the canopy, these clandestine landing spots are scattered across the landscape. 

“In those areas north of La Paz, which is already the connection with Beni and Pando, several narco-airstrips have been identified,” Paredes said. “Some of them are in the Madidi Park, which is a [protected] area where gold mining takes place.”

Others are allegedly hidden in the Noel Kempff National Park, in the northeastern part of the department of Santa Cruz, according to Quintanilla.

These national parks are a target for drug trafficking infrastructure, not only because they are in remote areas where it is difficult to carry out security operations, but also because they are located on the borders with Peru, another cocaine-producing country, and Brazil, one of the main gateways for drugs heading to Europe. Indigenous reserves are a particularly attractive target. Quintanilla told InSight Crime that satellite images have identified numerous airstrips in the Monteverde Community Land of Origin (Tierra Comunitaria de Origen – TCO), a protected area that is home to 128 indigenous communities.

If the imported drugs are processed in Bolivia, it is often within or near national parks. In the Santa Cruz department, drugs are processed in Carrasco and Amboró national parks, said Saúl Lara, deputy for Cochabamba in Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly and member of the security and anti-drug committee.

According to Lara, the cocaine industry has taken root in the towns around these parks, such as San Germán, Bulo Bulo, Yapacaní, and Ivigarzama. One drug trafficking analyst, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, suggested this shows a worrying increase in Bolivian involvement in the drug trade.

“The reserves have been invaded. And not only by coca plantations, but also by refining laboratories for cocaine base. Before, they didn’t refine [in Bolivia],” he said. “Now with Colombian technology and know-how, which is the best in the world, they refine with microwaves, with dryers… Now they put in a million dollars to get 500 kilos a day.”

Laboratories tend to be concealed under tree cover, so their environmental impact does not come from deforestation, but rather from the dumping of chemical residues into rivers and, to a lesser extent, on land, explained a Bolivian drug trafficking expert who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The pollutants alter the PH and oxygen levels of the rivers and harm the soil’s fertility, killing animals and plants. Both have repercussions for local communities that depend on these ecosystems for their survival. 

“The laboratories are always next to rivers because these act as the dumps where all the chemical waste necessary for cocaine production is discarded,” the expert said.

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