<H4>Cocaine Is Killing Colombian Nature Parks</H4>
<H5>By KIM HOUSEGO, Associated Press Writer</H5>
Tue Sep 27, 7:20 PM<NO>UPDATED 1 DAY 2 HOURS 43 MINUTES AGO</NO>
PUERTO ARTURO, Colombia - Cocaine is killing the great nature parks of Colombia. Government spraying of coca plant killer is driving growers and traffickers out of their usual territory into national parks where spraying is banned. Here they are burning thousands of acres of virgin rain forest and poisoning rivers with chemicals.
Now the government faces a painful dilemma: to spray weedkiller would be devastating, but the impact of coca-growing is increasingly destructive. The question is, which is worse?
Colombia is home to about 15 percent of all the world's plant species and one of its most diverse arrays of amphibians, mammals and birds. Dozens of species that populate its jungles and Andes mountains exist nowhere else on the planet. One of the richest is the Sierra Macarena National Park, where monkeys clamber across the jungle canopy and seven species of big cat prowl in its shadows.
But Sierra Macarena is most threatened by cocaine. A recent flight over part of its 1.6 million acres revealed a trail of ugly gashes and charred trunks of trees felled by coca planters. The intruders also have built dozens of makeshift drug labs in the park and in the nearby village of Puerto Arturo, bringing in tons of gasoline, cement, hydrochloric acid and other toxic chemicals to process the coca leaves into cocaine. All of it pollutes the rivers and soil.
So far only a small fraction of Sierra Macarena has been affected, but the spread of cocaine operations is alarming.
The amount of acreage under coca cultivation has more than tripled to 9,600 acres since 2003, according to the Counternarcotics Police. Overall, 28,000 acres are being cultivated in Colombia's 49 national parks, compared with 11,000 acres only three years ago. But the destruction is worse than the figures would indicate; for every acre of coca planted, an average three acres are torn down.
"The national parks offer perfect havens for traffickers," police Col. Henry Gamboa said as his Black Hawk helicopter swooped over a cocaine lab in the Sierra Macarena. "There is virtually nothing we can do about it. Our hands are tied."
The coca is planted by peasant farmers who process it into paste and sell it to rebels or right-wing paramilitary factions, who refine the paste into cocaine. Both groups have infiltrated Colombia's national parks.
The government says it is studying whether to lift the ban on spraying. If it doesn't, growers are bound to plant more crops in the reserves. But Indian tribes and environmental advocates contend that spraying would be harmful to the animals and their surroundings.
The United States has provided billions of dollars over the past five years for spraying Colombian drug fields, a move the United Nations says helped reduced overall cocaine production in Colombia last year by 13 percent.
Environmentalists insist the solution is for government workers to destroy the crops with machetes _ a method that has worked in mountainous areas beyond the spray planes' reach.
But the Sierra Macarena and many other national parks are occupied by rebels who threaten to kill anyone involved in manual eradication, officials say.
The Counternarcotics Police recently took politicians, judges and journalists on a helicopter tour of Sierra Macarena, where Colombia's grasslands meet the Amazon jungle about 90 miles south of the capital, Bogota.
"We would like to carry out manual eradication," Environment Minister Sandra Suarez told The Associated Press. "But in some regions of the park ... access is clearly difficult."
Suarez and other top Colombian officials say aerial spraying may be the only option.
National Police chief Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, who supports spraying, says "We're waiting for the order" to send in the planes.
If that happens, Indian groups, many whose members live in national parks, vow to hit the streets in protest.
"Fumigation is not the answer to the drug problem in Colombia," said Nilson Zurita of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. "It destroys the environment and sickens animals and people. Another solution must be found."