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Environmental Consequences of the War on Illicit Drugs in Colombia

Gregory Hooks

What you need to know

The militarized war on drugs in Colombia is extremely harmful to the environment. All parties involved in efforts to support or suppress cocaine production have detrimental effects on the environment. This conflict exemplifies the new way wars are fought, where ecological threats from warfare occur in the Global South rather than the Global North.

What is this research about?

During any war, devastation of the environment occurs. However, wars are now fought in a way that increases risks for countries in the Global South. In 1981, the United States militarized their efforts for the war on drugs in Colombia. Since then, the US has provided military training and supplies, and weapons. Many Colombian military groups, including both governmental and anti-governmental organizations, contribute to the war on drugs. The United States encounters little violence or damage on its own land in the war on drugs in Colombia, whereas Colombia experiences the majority of negative effects, which include casualties of war, economic collapse, and damage to the environment.

What did the researcher do?

The researchers located and analyzed current literature, which includes scholarly research, news articles, and governmental publications, on the militarized war on drugs in Colombia in the context of its environmental damage. They trace historical and social factors that led to cocaine production and organized revolutionary anti-government groups. They document the effects of American efforts to suppress the drug trade on the Colombian government.

What did the researcher find?

Despite the United States being involved

in this conflict, Colombia disproportionately experiences harmful effects to its environment. Many groups, including paramilitary, guerilla, and criminal forces, all contribute to the environmental damage that occurs in Columbia. This is congruent with how wars are now fought, shifting consequences to the Global South.

Eradicating cocaine production involves methods detrimental to the environment.  For example, aerial fumigation to destroy crops of cocaine-producing coca plants spreads harmful chemicals. The chemicals used in fumigation contaminate waterways, harm other plants in the area, and reduce biodiversity. When the efforts to eradicate coca plants affect crops, farmers either turn to producing coca themselves to supplement their income, or converting forested land into farmland, furthering the deforestation cycle.

Cocaine production involves unsustainable cultivation techniques and use of toxins. Coca leaves are ground into coca paste, which uses many harmful chemicals, along with large amounts of water. Coca producers do not anticipate their crops being around for many years and so use liberal amounts of chemicals on their plants, further compromising the waterways.

How can you use this research?

Governments can be reminded that militarized efforts to suppress the drug trade have negative environmental consequences. Understanding the effects the drug trade has on the ecosystem can help governments create less damaging strategies to eradicate the drug trade. Environmental organisations may use this research to inform their strategies for areas where drug production is prevalent. This research has been used by the Colombian government to ban the use of aerial fumigation on coca crops.

About the researchers

Dr. Gregory Hooks is professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at McMaster University.

Dr. Chad Smith is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Sociology at Texas State University. 

Michael Lengefeld is a graduate student in Sociology at Washington State University.


Smith, C., Hooks, G., and Lengefeld, M. (2014). The War on Drugs in Colombia: The Environment, the Treadmill of Destruction, and Risk-Transfer Militarism.  Available online at:

Learn more about Dr. Gregory Hooks