By Francisco Santos Calderon
Vice-President of Colombia
Colombian Cloud Forest. Picture by Adams Jhonson.
Bogotá — SharedResponsability. I confess that I didn’t know much about him before he walked into my office carrying a box of smelly cheese produced on his farm in England. Evenlode, he said, named after the river that runs through it, a long way away from Bogotá, Colombia. And while it is true that he came because Colombia called, really, he came out of a very personal interest in finding out what a gram of cocaine bought on a London street corner represents when translated into crisp Colombian Spanish.
We also spoke about personal choice, cocaine consumption being one, and the difficulty in asking people to reconsider cocaine not only because of the damage it does to them, but to Colombia’s environment.
Before Alex James tended to his farm, Evenlode, he was the bass player for ‘Blur,’ a band whose lifestyle lived up to its name. Voted the best guitar act in history by 200 British radio stations this past May, Blur’s enduring popularity guarantees its members not only ongoing media attention but also a degree of credibility in other projects they pursue. Such has been the case with James and farming his cheese-making business and defense of agriculture’s commercial potential generate headlines in important British publications. And such, I hope, will also be the case with James and Colombia.
James recently spent two weeks in Colombia filming a documentary that will air on the BBC’s Panorama, ostensibly “the world’s longest-running current affairs TV program,” early next year. The documentary follows James as he visits a representative number of Colombian people and places affected by drug trafficking from burnt jungle hills to landmine amputees, all unwitting victims of the world’s (Colombia very much included here) appetite for cocaine.
Sitting in my office, we spoke of how people simply do not realize that cocaine is violence condensed and heated by forests set aflame to grow coca. We also spoke about personal choice, cocaine consumption being one, and the difficulty in asking people to reconsider cocaine not only because of the damage it does to them, but to Colombia’s environment. Mediating personal choice, especially as regards personal health, we conceded, is a complex problem with few concrete answers. Then, he told me of efforts to ban cheese on the basis that it’s unhealthy. We laughed wondering what was next.
That conversation stayed with me and, were we to have it again, I’d add this: personal choice necessarily implies having options from which to choose. To eat cheese or tofu; to drink or not to drink; to smoke or not to smoke; to do cocaine or not to. When the outcome of such choices threatens to harm others, the law steps in to place boundaries. Thus, you can drink, but not before driving, and you can smoke, but not in closed, public spaces. The reason why the banning of cheese seams absurd is because eating it, no matter how dreadful the smell, will not injure those around you.
More and more, the environmental impact of our personal choices, capable of affecting both those we encounter and those we don’t, is generating the political will as well as the individual restraint needed to limit what we allow ourselves to choose. The rising sales of hybrid cars, recycled goods and energy efficient light bulbs say it all. As do the swelling number of government programs set to counter pollution and waste. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on the hybrid car example.
While a hybrid car will reduce its buyer’s fuel spending, its added value lies in the benefit it represents for the planet and, perhaps more so, in the message it sends out about its driver. This gives me hope. Each gram of cocaine represents a huge ecological cost for the planet and, thus, its consumption ought to question its user’s concern for the environment, something no one wants to place in doubt right now.
The hard part is creating awareness about the link between street cocaine and the 2.2 million hectares of forest slashed and burnt to grow coca in Colombia, second most biodiverse nation in the world. But James’ visit and the ensuing documentary will hopefully make people understand that, yes, cocaine use is a personal choice, but one with devastating environmental consequences. And, if we are willing to base our car choice on our environmental beliefs, then the same should also be true about what we choose to put in our bodies.