A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology shows the linkage between the illegal production of coca and the continuing destruction of Colombia's rainforest.

New plots of coca between 2002 and 2007 accounted for the direct destruction of 890 square kilometers of rainforest. That's roughly 6 percent of total rainforest lost in that period, which totaled to 14,000 square kilometers, or an area slightly larger than Jamaica. Most of the loss is linked to agriculture.

But the study, led by Liliana Dávalos, an assistant professor of evolution and ecology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, concludes that the closer the jungle is to newly developed coca plots, the more susceptible it is to destruction.

It also found that the more land is protected by the government, the less likely it is that coca growers will use it.

It wasn't exactly what the researchers were expecting they would find.

With coca may come troublesome neighbors

"We were expecting the more coca you had, the more migration you had, and the more migration you had, the more deforestation you had," Dávalos said. "But having new coca didn't necessarily lead to a gain in the number of people."

What's going on is more complex and has to do with lack of development on land near new coca production, Dávalos said. "When you take into account the people there, it's not just the coca itself."

The coca plots are located in remote areas that attract other entrepreneurs. An example could be a person setting up a beer stand close to where a new coca plot is, Dávalos said. She speculates that activities like these, along with the region's ongoing armed conflicts, could be indirectly leading to a larger pattern of deforestation.

Dávalos said the most encouraging part of the findings was the level of protection that government can provide on land to curb deforestation. The research also suggests land that should be protected.

The study analyzed land cover change in Colombia's rainforests in the northern Andes, Chocó and the Amazon. Colombia, Bolivia and Peru are the three commercial producers of coca.

World market for cocaine grows

While cocaine use has declined minimally in the United States in recent years, it's on a global rise, particularly in places like Argentina, Brazil, Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom, Dávalos said. "People wouldn't be going out of their way to plant this if there wasn't an eager market," she added.

The three big producing countries have been making efforts to stop coca production. In a separate 2009 study, Dávalos measured the effectiveness of the strategies governments followed to curb coca production.

The study found spraying herbicide to kill the coca bushes, a path that Colombia followed, to be very ineffective. The amount of hectares sprayed outnumbered the amount of coca eradicated by a 30-to-1 ratio, she said.

Bolivia and Peru responded to the crisis differently through measures like attempting to provide alternative work to coca farmers.

U.N. data from 2010 show Peru leading the world in global coca production, with 45 percent of the market. Colombia accounted for almost 40 percent, while Bolivia produced just over 15 percent.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500