New front opens in war on drugs

19th March 2010 at 00:00
School's bid to stress environmental impact of cocaine boosts Colombia's efforts to combat cartels, says UK envoy

For 30 years, the Colombian authorities have been fighting the drug cartels that produce and traffic cocaine. Thousands of innocent people have been killed.

"Police officers, judges, journalists, political leaders who have fought the drug barons - the toll in terms of human life has been terrible," says the Colombian ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera.

But this is just one chapter in the "sad story" of the illegal drug trade in Colombia, he continues. Billions of pounds have been wasted fighting drug barons, instead of investing in social priorities like education; the country's image and reputation is in tatters; and a huge price has been paid in terms of the environment.

As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Colombia is home to 50,000 plant species and 18 per cent of the world's bird species, but massive tracts of its rainforest have been razed for coca cultivation.

"Some 2.2 million hectares of rainforest (an area slightly larger than Wales) have been destroyed for these drugs," says Mr Rodriguez.

If this destruction does not stop, several hundred species will become extinct within decades - like the tiny hummingbird, Gorgeted Puffleg, which was only discovered in 2005 in a small, remote region of rainforest in south-western Colombia.

It is this last "terrible consequence" of cocaine that the Colombian authorities hope will make the next generation think twice before taking the drug. While violence is a local issue, biodiversity is a world issue, they reason. So, in 2005, they launched their Shared Responsibility campaign with the Gorgeted Puffleg as its symbol.

Work taking place at Girvan Academy in South Ayrshire, under the banner of Shared Responsibility, is an "excellent example" that the Colombian government would like to see replicated in schools around the world, says Mr Rodriguez, who visited recently. "This is a model for schools not only in Scotland and the UK, but in the world. I would like the pupils to know we now feel we are not alone in this battle, which has been very difficult."

Mr Rodriguez is a firm believer that education is the key to halting demand for cocaine. "I have been a university professor for 30 years; I am convinced of the power of education. If we provide the right information for young people, instil in them the right habits and values, we will be able to get them away from drugs. Young people are sensitive to environmental matters, so this is a very clever way of engaging them."

But can highlighting the environmental impact of the drug succeed where other campaigns have failed?

Stephen Scholes (S6) thinks it can: "When we go to uni next year, we will feel confident to say `no'."

Stephen is one of three senior pupils who have spearheaded the school's Shared Responsibility work. They created a DVD about cocaine use in Scotland, in which they interviewed everyone from politicians to former addicts, and presented the issues, including the plight of Colombia, to teaching staff.

This led to S2 coming off timetable for a month to pursue a cross- curricular project on the country. The pupils have linked up with their peers in Colombia to exchange views, and organised a "white night" at a local youth cafe to raise awareness of the drug's impact.

"This is something new, instead of the usual lessons about drugs, where it's `don't take drugs, do a crossword, that's it sorted'," says Stephen. "I didn't realise the environmental and social impact of drugs. They don't just cause you to have a good or a bad time - there is a ripple effect through your family and community, and now we know the Colombian element."

Shared Responsibility makes clear the pointlessness of trying to be green but taking cocaine at the weekend, he continues. "It's not any use recycling, driving an electric car or buying local veg and then snorting a line of cocaine at the weekend."

Willie MacColl, Scotland's drugs co-ordinator, says: "People view cocaine as a safe, clean drug, taken by the rich and famous. It is far from it. It is highly adulterated and is not just harming the families and communities in Scotland, but in other countries as well."

While pupils at Edinburgh's Portobello High are planning to take on the project, Allan Rattray, headteacher of Girvan Academy, is determined Shared Responsibility will not fall by the wayside when these pupils leave the school.

"I'd like to see interdisciplinary projects as a feature of the school, so we'll definitely be using Shared Responsibility as the basis for a project again in S2," he says.

He also has plans to use the schools' peer educators, senior pupils who deliver alcohol education, to spread the message.

Mr Rodriguez concludes: "Drug consumption is not an individual decision that has no consequences beyond the personal. It has a huge impact, especially in Colombia."


In 2007, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) launched a new strategy highlighting the environmental and ethical arguments against using cocaine. In 2008, SCDEA staff worked with Learning and Teaching Scotland to see how their strategy could be integrated into the curriculum. That year, the project was piloted at Girvan Academy, where pupils looked at the social, economic and political issues in Colombia in media studies, and the rainforests, volcanoes, earthquakes and ecological damage caused by cocaine production in geography. In 2009, Girvan Academy picked up a Young Scot community award for its work on Shared Responsibility.

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