During the last two decades the drug war in Colombia has consumed multibillions in resources, funnelled vital state funds from prevention to interdiction and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. The so-called “War on Drugs” has strained Colombia to its very core ever since powerful cartels took root in Medellín and Cali in late 1980s and threatened the stability and democracy of a nation for decades to come.

Despite the resilience of the Colombian people and unimaginable efforts by the police and military to eradicate coca production and curb a criminal market which relies on cocaine, large tracts of this country continue to be dominated by powerful drug lords, micro-cartels, and urban gangs who trade in a relentless flow of illicit drugs.

While the violence and corruption associated with illegal trafficking has impacted nations across the hemisphere, from Mexico to Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, Colombia’s reputation around the world has also been indelibly marred by a conflict deeply-rooted in the drugs trade.

Colombia’s efforts to rout out coca has been recognized around the world, as well as the sacrifices of its men and women who every day fight on the frontline of a war which seemingly has no end. And as the debate on whether to legalise or not certain narcotics has yet to become part of the public health agenda of nations, Colombia, continues to fight this war on the ground and from the air.

In May, President Juan Manuel Santos took a historic decision to suspend the aerial fumigation of coca after a report was released by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which declared glyphosate, the chemical in Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ herbicide a “probable” health risk to humans and a carcinogenic for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The world’s largest seed company, Monsanto, refuted the scientific evidence of the WHO report, but Santos acting on recommendations of the country’s National Council on Dangerous Drugs (CNE) took the step to suspend all fumigations and a marked shift in the drug reform policy of this nation.

The fumigation of coca plantations has faced many obstacles since it was authorized in 1994; such as difficult terrain for the crop dusters to maneuver, shifting weather and wind patterns, and the threat of surface to air bullets against the helicopters and low-flying aircraft used for dropping the defoliant glyphosate on hillsides and fields.

The human cost of manual eradication has been matched by an environmental toll. While Colombia’s security forces and military hardware are targeted by the nation’s two guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN) – and which operate in the regions where coca plantations are notoriously prevalent – the aerial spraying of herbicides has impacted the legal crops of subsistence farmers, as well as the flora and fauna of a nation steeped in biodiversity.

If Colombia gave the literary world its yellow butterfly, then the “War on Drugs” may soon have a two-winged foot soldier: one willing to skirt up the steep slopes of National Parks and eat away at coca plants which grow clandestinely in the shade of tropical trees.

The Eloria Noyesi butterfly
The Eloria Noyesi butterfly

In the rush to eradicate coca, the beige-colored Eloria noyesi has been reproducing quickly as a result of an initiative by Alberto Gómez Mejía, founder and director of the Quindío’s Botanical Gardens. Born in 1948 in Belalcázar, Caldas, Alberto came to fluttering insects after graduating as a lawyer from the Javeriana University. Upon joining the office of the Secretary General of the Armenia, the professor became interested in the ecology of the Coffee Triangle which encompasses three departments: Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda. Gómez traveled extensively in representation of his city to international conferences on ecology and where he realized that the entrenched and negative image associated with his country, when it comes to drugs, trafficking and human rights abuses stopped at the issue of biodiversity. “The enlightened people of the world know us for our ecosystems, our plants and animal diversity. They treat us like heroes.”

If ecological conservation has staved off some of the negative stereotypes associated with Colombia, Gómez wanted to make a difference and decided to run for Mayor of Armenia. He was elected to the city’s top post in 1975 and at the age of 27. Along with Professor Jesús Idrobo, a botanist from the Univeridad Nacional, Alberto, set out to start one of the first botanical gardens in Colombia and one which continues to receive world-wide acclaim for its magnificent bamboo groves.

The inspiration that the coffee community of Calarcá should have its own botanical garden came after Gómez familiarized himself with the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Gardens of Bogotá,and wherever the lawyer ventured he would thumb through local phone directories to find the addresses of the most unusual and diverse sanctuaries dedicated to biodiversity. He visited London’s Kew Gardens, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Los Angeles’ Arboretum and Berlin’s Dahlem. In 1979, Quindio’s Botanical Garden was founded.

But butterflies weren’t part of the original plan until Gómez received one an invitation to meet one of Britain’s leading naturalists, Dame Miriam Rothschild and tour her estate at Ashton Wold. Known as Queen Bee, Dame Miriam, was a world authority on butterflies and had authored ‘The Butterfly Gardener.’ Gómez was so taken by Ashton Wold, its habitat of wild flowers and insects, and Rothschild’s bible on nature’s perfect pollinators, that he followed her advice and constructed his own Butterfly House on the grounds of the Calarcá botanical gardens. The first 180 species were collected in the foothills of the Central Cordillera and housed within the iconic butterfly- shaped pavilion account for one percent of the total Day Butterflies on our planet. In 2005, Alberto Gómez Mejía was awarded the prestigious Whitley Prize for his conservation efforts with Colombia’s most endangered plants and species.

When in 1982 a plague of coca-eating moths beset large areas of Putumayo’s coca harvest without impacting other plants and insects, farmers were bewildered at the sudden loss of their cocaine-producing crops. Alberto and the research scientists at the Quindío Botanical Gardens began to study the habits of the Eloria noyesi: a moth which grows quickly, lays its larvae on the Erythroxylum plant and is monophagous in that it only eats coca. But once the metamorphosis cycle is completed the butterfly lives on as a defenseless creature of flight.

During Juan Manuel Santos’ term as Minister of Defense (2006-2009) and under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Alberto Gómez proposed that the Eloria noyesi be tested in the “war on drugs.” With special permits from the Ministry, the lawyer-turned environmentalist proposed to set up a makeshift laboratory within an army battalion to see how the larvae could destroy coca shrubs. The coca-butterfly project was shelved after the government couldn’t raise the necessary funds of a proposed budget of US$ 35,000 despite the many billions it was investing every year in the ‘Plan Colombia’ anti-narcotics program.

Alberto Gómez and the Eloria noyesi are back in the spotlight after the damning W report and the abrupt end to two decades of glyphosate spraying. “I seem to be back in fashion as a result of the butterfly,” remarks Gómez, all too aware that this “Made in Colombia” insect could now be a latest line of defense in the on-going fight to rid the countryside of coca. But Gómez is emphatic regarding the limited use the butterfly in certain areas of the country, such as National Parks, where the ecology is diverse and drug barons have caused deforestation to clear land for coca or hide this cash crop in areas too difficult to access. “It’s impossible to think that with this butterfly we are going to eradicate coca in Colombia,” states Gómez. “It’s just one of several options, especially in ecologically-sensitive areas.”

Possibly the greatest contribution to ending cocaine production with the Eloria noyesi doesn’t depend on how much it will eat or its role as a winged substitute to Monsanto’s toxic chemicals. It’s in the lives it could save everyday when anti-narcotics police head out on a mission or Colombian soldiers are put in harm’s way when detecting and clearing a cocaine processing laboratory deep in the jungle. And if a defenseless butterfly is to become a substitute weapon in the “war on drugs”, the fight will come down to conservation once again: this time our own.