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Climate Change Might Deliver a Serious Blow to Cocaine Production

Scientists say tropical crops will likely be hard hit by climate change but very little is known about how coca will be affected by changes in temperature and precipitation.

by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe
Nov 12 2014, 5:25pm

Imagen vía Flickr

The coca plant — the raw material used to produce cocaine — has endured multiple assaults on its cultivation: by Bolivia in 1983 when it announced a five-year program aimed at eradicating the crop, by the Colombian and American governments as part of Plan Colombia in 1999, by Peru in the 1990s under President Alberto Fujimori, and, of course, during America's so-called War on Drugs. Yet it's proven to be a tenacious plant.

Climate change, however, might succeed where human intervention has failed.

Some experts predict the plant will prove to be highly resilient to rising temperatures and more extreme swings in precipitation patterns. Other researchers say, like most agricultural crops in Latin America, coca's future will be severely constrained by those changing climate conditions.

"Basically, all agricultural crops in tropical areas will be affected by climate change." Walter Vergara of the World Resources Institute told VICE News.

'It is a tough plant.'

Vergara anticipates a major drop in many types of crop yields in Latin America by mid-century due to increasing air and soil temperatures as well as changes in precipitation patterns due to climate change. He says that some areas in the region will see more torrential rainfall while others will experience more frequent periods of drought that span longer periods of time.

Kenneth Young, a University of Texas geographer who has studied climate change impacts on biodiversity in Peru, offered an optimistic view of the future of coca, suggesting that the plant may be resilient enough to deal with the effects of climate change.

"Whatever the complicated consequences of climate change in that part of the world, this is not something that we would expect to be threatened," Young told VICE News.

"It is a tough plant," he said. "There are a number of varieties, so I think there is enough genetic diversity of it as a species that it will be, indeed, robust."

He says coca can be found in different habitats, both dry and wet, which also shows its potential ability to adapt to shifts in climate conditions.

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"But, in addition, it is culturally mediated, so that people are helping this plant to grow, extend its range," Young told VICE News. "So you have two things that would counteract the consequences of climate change."

Vergara projects a different outcome. 

"I don't know about this particular plant, but I would be skeptical about someone that says 'Oh, this plant will thrive," he told VICE News. 

"When temperature increases, the photosynthesis process speeds up to a moment," he said. "After that moment, the photosynthesis apparatus collapses very quickly, so there will be a plateau for most crops."

Todd Dawson, a plant ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says there are not many studies that have examined coca's future in the context of climate change.

"The plant in its native range in the tropics actually lives over quite a variety of different elevations in the Andes Mountains," Dawson told VICE News. "So it may not do well in lower-elevation areas that receive hotter temperatures or in some areas that may become drier, but in other areas it may do just fine."

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Dawson says there is a high degree of uncertainty about how tropical plant species will adapt to climate change. Scientists wonder if the geographic range in which specific plants thrive will shrink substantially — or if they will disappear altogether.

"And those are questions that are very challenging for us to answer for sure," he told VICE News.

"Many times because coca plants are being cultivated, if the climate changes, someone will intervene and they're probably going to irrigate them and take care of them because they are a money-earning crop," he said.

"So, in some respect," Dawson told VICE News, "they get rescued from climate change because of human intervention."

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter: @AgataBoxe

Image via Flickr