The War on the Environment

The situation of the “War on Drugs” in Afghanistan is a bleak one. Foreign countries have poured money into ending the opium cultivation, yet today Afghanistan still produces 75% of the world’s opium, with an 18% growth in the last year alone. More Afghani citizens are developing drug dependencies, and the common farmers and users are taking the brunt of the legal ramifications while drug traffickers and politicians suffer. In addition to this, there is another casualty of the “war on drugs” not often mentioned: the environment.

When making space for the poppies to be cultivated, land is first illegally cleared, knocking out any natural habitat and resources from the area. Afterward, chemical insecticides and fertilizer are used on the land in order to make it more conducive to growing poppies; however, these chemicals have the double effect of also damaging the land itself. Additionally, opium is often grown in limestone-rich mountainous areas that are ecologically sensitive and therefore especially prone to damages caused by chemicals. Many harms can be seen to come from this harsh and unregulated treatment of the land: landslides, flooding, erosion, and drought are all prevalent in areas where opium cultivation is most centered, especially in areas heavily controlled by warlords. The environment is further harmed by waste disposal; their trade being illegal and unregulated to begin with, drug cultivators have no need to concern themselves with how to properly dispose of their waste and are able to pollute wherever is most convenient to them.

Destruction of the land for opium cultivation is not isolated just to Afghanistan. In Burma, forests are being cut down in order to produce more heroin. Burma has seen soil erosion, and wildlife loss. The deforestation kills the wildlife and reduces the amount of species; of those that could be documented, there are now approximately fewer than 500 tigers, and fewer than 200 each of the Thai crocodile and Kouprey. Additionally, rivers on the borders of Burma are reported to have chemical contents, most likely the result of unregulated waste and the careless use of chemicals.

The greatest harms to the environment from opium cultivation comes from this: growers clearing land wherever they are able and then using harmful chemicals with no regard for the environment, and then disposing waste in the most convenient method. However, these problems would not persist so drastically if the cultivation were not illegal. Were opium cultivation regulated, governments would have the ability to mandate where poppies could be grown and how waste should be disposed of, just as there are restrictions for any other legal crop that is grown and produced.

Meanwhile, foreign governments are divided on how to handle drug policies. On one hand, United States Republicans recently attempted to pass through Congress approval for the use of a new fungus. This fungus, a strain of fusarium oxysporam, was specifically designed to eradicate crops; however the damage it would cause to the surrounding plant life would be just as great as the damage to the poppies themselves. The proposal of this fungus was blocked in Colombia, but Republicans still attempted to use hasty research in order to gain permission to use the fungus on the environment in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, governments are coming to realize that the war on drugs is failing. In 2009 the US announced that it was going to change its methods of attempting to destroy poppy fields, and would instead put that money toward encouraging farmers to grow other crops. This tactic has not yielded much success, as there is too much money to be made in illegal opium trafficking, but acknowledging that past strategies do not work is a step in the right direction. With an end to the war on drugs would come an end to the war on the environment.