Fri, Jun 10, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Scientists offer new weapon in the war on drugs: insects


A group of Colombian scientists believe they have found a way to wipe out cocaine production in Colombia, the world's main supplier of the drug: unleash an army of hungry moth caterpillars on the plants that produce cocaine.

In Colombia, where a US fumigation campaign on coca crops has produced mixed results, officials expressed interest in the new proposal.

Colombian Environment Minister Sandra Suarez said that the government has received the proposal and considered it an "interesting alternative" to existing eradication methods that deserves further study.

The plan envisions breeding thousands of beige-colored Eloria Noyesi moths in laboratories, packing them into boxes and releasing them into Colombia's steamy, coca-growing regions, said Carlos Alberto Gomez, president of the privately-funded National Network of Botanical Gardens.

The moths, about twice the size of a fly, are native only to the Andean region of South America, Gomez said.

Gomez, whose group made the proposal last week to the government, 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.

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 plant life 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 plants 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 US government.

A record number of hectares was fumigated by the crop dusters last year, but the total area of coca under cultivation at the end of 2004 was 114,000 hectares -- slightly more than the 113,850 hectares that were left over in 2003 after spraying.

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