A group of Colombian scientists believe they've found a way to wipe out cocaine production: unleash an army of hungry moth caterpillars. But critics of the proposal say the chance for "ecological mischief" is high.
The plan envisions breeding thousands of beige-colored Eloria Noyesi moths in laboratories, packing them into boxes and releasing them into steamy coca-growing regions of Colombia, the world's main supplier of the drug. The moths, about twice the size of a fly, are native only to the Andean region of South America.
Colombian Environment Minister Sandra Suarez told The Associated Press that the government considers the proposal an "interesting alternative" to existing eradication methods.
Carlos Alberto Gomez, president of the privately funded National Network of Botanical Gardens, made the proposal last week. He said the moths would naturally make a beeline for the coca plants and lay their eggs on the leaves. About a week later, caterpillars would emerge and destroy the plants by devouring the leaves.
Each moth could lay eggs on more than a hundred plants in one month, said Gonzalo Andrade, a biology professor with Colombia's Universidad Nacional, who has been working with the botanical garden group. He called it a natural solution to eradication. "It would be like fumigating the crops with moths," Andrade said.
But the idea has already drawn criticism. Ricardo Vargas, director of the Colombian environmental group Andean Action, contended that while the moths may be native to this region, there's nothing natural about releasing thousands of them into small areas. The tropics have the world's most diverse plant life, he said, so the moths would likely threaten other plants as well. "With a plan like this, the chance for ecological mischief is very high and very dangerous," Vargas said.
Gomez's association also recommended the use of other natural enemies of coca such as fungus.
The proposal, and the Colombian government's interest, comes five years into a massive fumigation program of coca crops in Colombia, paid for and mostly carried out by the U.S. government.
A record number of acres was fumigated by the crop dusters last year, but the total number of acres under cultivation at the end of 2004 was slightly more than the number left over in 2003 after spraying. Peasant farmers have been simply replanting the fast-growing coca, frustrating the eradication efforts.
Andrade said moths would better counter the replanting problem because they would continue to reproduce and attack the plants.
The idea to use biological agents to eradicate coca is not new. In 2000, the Colombian government rejected a proposal by the United States to introduce a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum to coca plants as a means of eradication. Colombia said it was concerned about possible mutations and adverse affects on people and the environment in the delicate Amazon basin, where most of Colombia's coca is grown.