While Colombia has more bird species than any other country worldwide,
much of their habitat is also suitable for growing coca and opium
poppies. New research shows that these illicit crops are expanding into
forest remnants where many threatened bird species live. "Ultimately,
the conservation of forests and forest-dependent birds in Colombia may
hinge on successfully curbing economic incentives for deforestation,
including international trade in illicit drugs," says Maria Alvarez of
Columbia University in New York, New York, in the August issue of
Colombia has lost about 70% 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 a fifth each year since 1995.
To identify areas where illicit crops could threaten bird diversity,
Alvarez 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.
Alvarez found that most of Colombia’s illicit crops are in the Amazon
region and most of 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
7,000 acres 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 5,500 acres in two protected areas in and
around the northern West Andes, which has about 60 threatened bird
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 Alvarez.
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 23,000 acres 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 a tenth in only a decade, says Alvarez.
While the Colombian government is trying to eradicate illicit crops by
spraying herbicides from low-flying aircraft, these efforts have been
largely 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 Alvarez.
Source: Society For Conservation Biology. July 2002.