While Columbia has more bird species than any other country worldwide, much of its habitat is also suitable for growing coca (Erythroxylum novogranatense and E. coca) and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). New research shows that these illicit crops are expanding into forest remnants where threatened bird species live.
“Ultimately, the conservation of forests and forest-dependent birds in Colombia may hinge on curbing economic incentives for deforestation, including international trade in illicit drugs,” says Maria Álvarez of Columbia University in New York in the August issue of Conservation Biology.
Colombia has lost about 70 percent of its continuous montane forests during the last 200 years, and illicit crops account for about half of the recent deforestation. The acreage planted in illicit crops has grown by about one-fifth each year since 1995.
To identify areas where illicit crops could threaten bird diversity, Álvarez used existing data to compare maps of the crops with those of bird species that are threatened or found only in Colombia. This is the first geographic analysis showing the overlap between illicit crops and critical bird conservation areas in Colombia.
Álvarez found that most of Colombia’s illicit crops are in the Amazon region and most of the threatened birds are in the Andes. While this might not sound too bad from a conservation standpoint, opium poppies have recently expanded into the Andes and are grown in a number of reserves with high bird diversity. For instance, there are a total of nearly 2,800 hectares of illicit crops in and around three protected areas in the southern West Andes, which has about 115 threatened bird species; and there are a total of about 2,200 hectares in two protected areas in and around the northern West Andes, which has about 60 threatened bird species.
Many of these species are found only in specific regions and some are known only in single reserves. “If the expansion of illicit crops in the Andes continues, the effect on forest-dependent Colombian birds might be devastating,” says Álvarez.
Illicit crops are also being grown in several smaller mountainous regions in northern Colombia that have high bird diversity. For instance, there are a total of about 9,300 hectares of illicit crops in five protected areas in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria and the Serrania del Perija, which each have about 40 threatened bird species. If illicit crop cultivation continues to increase in Colombia’s montane forests, some reserves that are critical to bird conservation could be fragmented by as much as one-tenth in only a decade, says Álvarez.
Although the Colombian government is trying to eradicate illicit crops by spraying herbicides from low-flying aircraft, these efforts have been ineffectual, says Alvarez. “The area sprayed has increased 80 times in the last 16 years, and the area planted in illicit crops has grown five times,” she says.
Even so, there is hope. In regions that depend on illicit crops, the government plans to help farmers switch to licit crops. This could give conservationists the opportunity to help protect critical bird habitats. “Conservationists must become involved so that the crops selected are ecologically appropriate and so that the best natural habitats are protected from wholesale destruction,” says Álvarez.
Álvarez, M.D. 2002. Illicit crops and bird conservation priorities in Colombia. Conservation Biology 16:1086-1096.