July 23, 2002 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 Conservation Biology.
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 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 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.
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